Musings of an aging hang glider pilot

(Sept 30, 2022) “Mama Walker” (Big Walker Mountain) is a fickle lady. One day she can take you to incredible heights, other days a hard smack down to earth. With Covid and other things in life, my visits to her have been rare in the last few years. Last weekend was the Big Walker Fly In, and I paid her a visit to see what she might offer me. At my age I am no longer interested in the often rock and roll rowdy thermals that can take you to the incredible heights (and sometimes severe pucker when coming into a turbulent LZ at the end of a flight). After over 40 years of flying, and a body that is slowing down, I am more than happy to experience the magic of stepping off a mountain again, but into gentle evening conditions. If one is lucky, a Wonder Wind will kick in as the sun is sinking - a gentle and widespread lifting of the last warm air as the valley below cools.

For younger and bolder pilots, mid-day thermals can be wondrous things - finding the center of one and turning tight, high banked circles can take you to great heights at 1000 or more ft/min. In a matter of minutes the mountain you launched from can seem to flatten as it recedes below you. But what goes up must go down, and where there is rapidly rising air, there must also be rapidly sinking air, often very close by. Flying out of one into the other can result in “going over the falls”, which is exactly what it sounds like, as you find your glider nose suddenly pointing at the ground (modern gliders will recover quickly). Or encountering turbulence that leaves you feeling weightless while you hear the sail being smacked down on the frame above you. Modern gliders are built to safely handle this, and it mostly comes down to how much you like riding in ‘rodeo air’, although in extreme conditions (most often in desert terrain, with high heating and dry air) gliders can be broken by severe tumbles (which is why we carry parachutes).

Thermals can take you to “cloudbase”, which is the altitude at which cumulus clouds are forming. When you see a sunny day with lots of puffy white clouds, those are cumulus. Many of them will have flat dark bottoms and tops with defined edges, like a head of cauliflower. Those are the tops of active thermals. The flat bottoms are all at the same altitude, which reflects the dewpoint of the rising air. Once you start getting close to the clouds, the terrain below matters very little, you are now flying cloud-to-cloud, all the while being careful not to get too close to that flat bottom. Bigger clouds mean stronger thermals, and if you get too close you can find yourself in powerful lift that you can’t get out of - soon to find yourself being rocked in the whiteout turbulence of a cloud with no way to know up from down. Usually you will eventually be spit out the side, colder, shaken, and hopefully wiser (I know people it has happened to, but I am not one of them).

On the best of days, once you get near cloudbase, you might see that your cloud is part of a line of clouds, leading off to the horizon - which is known as a “cloud street”. These almost never happen on days you have planned for them, but always on days you have something else you were supposed to do and no ground support. The temptation is strong - do you take a ride down the cloud street to unknown distances, or circle down to be responsible with your other obligations. Hint: responsibility does not always win :-) So you drift downwind, heading for the next cloud, and soon your normal LZ is too far away upwind to return to, and you are truly on your way. You might get “shot down” only a few miles on your way, leaving you wishing you’d been responsible. Or you might not land for hours and many miles away (Big Walker pilots have made many flights of 50 to 100 miles ‘over the back’ and into North Carolina). Eventually you will land, and now you have to find a way home. Before cell phones this may have meant knocking on a farm house door and asking to use their phone to make a long distance call. And who to call, when no one was expecting to suddenly be asked to spend the rest of their day (evening) driving to pick you up? Or maybe you have to resort to hitch hiking to get home, only to have to return the next day with a vehicle that can carry the glider you stashed in the corner of a field.

Over my years of flying I have touched clouds, and “cut the cord” as I drifted downwind, leaving the home site behind for parts unknown. I have experienced great joy and sheer terror - taking to heart the old pilot adage that it is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground. There is magic about it that keeps one coming back - and it is indeed magic to hook yourself to a few pounds of Dacron and aluminum and step off a mountain - even if that magic is solidly grounded in physics. At my age I have gotten as high and gone as far as I will ever go, or indeed want to. Been there and done that. For a rusty old pilot even a “sled ride” down to the LZ in calm conditions is fine enough.

So last weekend there was one good flyable day, and many pilots had good flights before I got there. Some flew for hours, got respectable altitude gains (several thousand feet) and saw good portions of the 30 mile long ridge. That was all mid-day stuff, for the young-uns. I arrived mid afternoon to do a leisurely setup on the mountain, waiting to see what the evening would hold. As it neared 5PM the winds were settling, but it seemed the whole side of the mountain was “active” - leaves in the treetops lightly rustling wherever you looked. I’ve learned that sometimes, when you see that, even if the wind on launch is light, there can be sweet lift out in front of you.

Learning to fly a hang glider is not that hard, at least the mechanics of launching, landing and turning can be learned in a few weeks or months. It is learning about the air you are launching into that goes on for a lifetime. The wind you see coming into a launch is seldom enough information to determine if or when to launch. That gentle breeze blowing up the slope may actually be a “rotor” - a horizontal roll of air at the top of a mountain from wind coming behind the mountain and descending in front of you - a guaranteed rough and unhappy ride to the LZ, if you can make it that far. For launch slots cut in a forest, as are common in the East, a cross wind will usually turn and flow up the slot, regardless of the actual wind direction. What are the leaves down on the side of the mountain doing - are their silver (underside) faces visible to the left or right? Any soaring birds to watch? Do the buzzards have their wings stretched fully out (indicating milder conditions), or are the pulled in in more of a V-shape, indicating stronger/turbulent air. Which way are the clouds moving, what is the variation in timing and intensity of the wind you can feel, what time of day is it, what do you know about local conditions for that particular flying site? Should you expect katabatic flow (downslope wind caused by a cooling mountainside as the sun sinks) in the LZ? Air capable of sustaining flight beyond a “sled ride” - soaring air - is by definition turbulent. Wind coming into the side of a mountain has to rise to get over the mountain - which provides “ridge lift”. Uneven heating of the land causes rising columns of hot air called thermals. The puffy white clouds you see dotting the sky on a clear day are the tops of thermals - although you can also have thermals on clear days. Most commonly, we fly in some combination of ridge and thermal lift. So, while we require certain forms of turbulent air to stay aloft, our wings are large and light and can be easily overwhelmed - literally a leaf in the wind. The lifetime of learning goes into determining when to fly, and when to leave the wing safely folded. Even pilots launching 10 minutes apart can have entirely different flights.

Pilots can be like lemmings - all sitting on the mountaintop, eyeing one another - “looks good, you go first”. If someone flies and they end up in the LZ, everyone goes back to waiting as the hapless pilot is tearing down his glider below. But if that pilot gains altitude, there is a rush for everyone to get off the mountain as quickly as they can. I have a favorite memory where I was on the good side of that story. A mountain up in West Virginia with a party to go to afterwards. We all set up there for hours, watching the wind streamers barely move, hoping for something more to develop. Finally, as the afternoon wore on, I resolved to “take my sled ride like a man” so I could get on to the party and the cold beer. I waited until I saw the slightest puff of air coming in and launched. Surprisingly, my variometer (vertical speed indicator) gave me occasional chirps, meaning light rising air. I circled as slowly and as gently as I could to stay in the elusive lift. After what seemed like a long time I gained maybe 50 or 100 feet, and the chirping became more consistent (stronger lift). Eventually it “turned on” and I was at 1000 ft and still climbing - after a bit I topped out with an 1800 ft gain. As I circled in my lofty perch I watched the whole group of pilots left on the mountain rush to launch - and go straight to the LZ. Apparently I had lucked into one of the few thermals of the day. That I was on the good side of that story being such a memorable event tells you how few times I got to experience such a fortunate outcome. The beer that evening tasted even better than anticipated.

But now there were just three of us left on the mountain, and another pilot with many more years of experience than me decided to launch. He held on for 5 or 10 minutes at about launch altitude, but losing a few feet here and there, and finally heading to the LZ. But while I was watching his flight, it seemed the wind was getting slightly stronger, especially after he was on his way to the LZ. By the time he had landed it had definitely picked up. Maybe not quite a Wonder Wind (lift seemingly everywhere), but close to it.

I had a two step launch and turned out of the launch slot into lightly lifting air. Regardless of what you may have expected, the next couple of minutes after emerging from the end of the slot will determine much of what your flight will be like. On many sites you can only lose a couple of hundred feet of altitude, or less, before having to leave the mountain to safely reach the LZ. Finding lift and gaining altitude in those first minutes is critical to extended flight. Thermal cycling means pilots launching 5 minutes apart can find one above the mountain, and the other in the LZ. Once over the mountain you have altitude to lose before you need to head for the LZ, and that extra altitude can allow you to ride out lulls and lighter air.

My lightly lifting air was consistent enough that I was soon above the spine of the ridge. Once above the ridge top, compression effects make for more consistent lift, and I was able to begin searching out the stronger and more consistent areas of rising air. And also watch the last pilot on the mountain rush to launch to join me. Soon we were both above the ridge enjoying the evening air (after 5PM, with sunset just after 7). For 45 minutes we were able to enjoy gentle and fairly consistent rising air, mostly at 4 to 7 hundred feet above takeoff. Some parts of the ridge had more consistent lift than others, and we both soon found those. No adrenaline pumping high banked thermal turns to rocket us to lofty altitudes, just the gentlest of low banked turns at the lower end of the speed range to milk every foot of altitude possible from the light air.

For this old pilot, to once again see the world from above the mountain was thrill enough. The sinking sun cast shadows on the lush landscape below, highlighting every feature of the toy landscape. I know my days in this sport are limited, and that is ok, I’ve known over 40 years of doing what mankind has dreamed of for thousands of years. When I am no longer flying, I still will not lose the sky - being able to look up and see and know things most people never will.

As the sun sank lower, the lift became lighter and we slowly lost altitude. I left the mountain while still above it to have plenty of time to set up my landing - I was a bit nervous about my rusty landing skills in a challenging LZ. But I ended up being completely happy about the landing approach and touching down just where I had planned to. The last second, the landing flare, was not one of my proudest most graceful ones, but definitely “good enough”.

This was during a Fly In, so many pilots had had good flights that day, and the beer and tales around the campfire that night were especially satisfying.



Ready to launch, evaluating the conditions. Are the streamers pointing straight up the slot? Are the leaves on the edges of the slot rustling about the same amount? Is there any other traffic? What is happening in the tree tops below launch - is that a thermal heading my way? Does the wing feel balanced and stable? Assistants stand read to grab wing wires if a gust gets me too far out of balance. Before taking that first step is the last time I have full control over decisions - from then until landing.
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It was an easy launch, just a couple of steps and I was airborne.
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Between liftoff and the end of the launch slot is a busy period - transitioning hands from the uprights to the basetube and getting legs back into the harness. You want to be in full flying posture when emerging from the end of the slot. 07_launch3.jpg


Coming out of the end of the slot you need to be prepared for anything. Maybe the wind was more cross than you realized, or perhaps there is a strong “lift band” out beyond the trees. A strong lift band has caught many an unwary new pilot, sometimes with disastrous consequences (the unexpected lift, hitting the nose of the glider first, tilts the glider up into a stalled position - before the pilot can recover the glider has stall-turned back into the mountain). Today such an event is very unlikely, but survival in this sport means continually expecting the unexpected. 08_launch4.jpg


First pass on the ridge. This is starting to look good. Maybe a few feet of gain already, and coming to a favorable spot. The ridge has a slight backwards bend on my left, just as the ridge height decreases. These often combine to provide a small but predictable lift area. Turning in this lift will minimize the normal altitude loss that comes from a turn, and possibly even add a bit.

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Above the ridge now, things are looking much better. Still not assured by any means, but now a bit of altitude to work with, and the advantage of being able to get more into the compressed lift of the air going over the ridge top. My flying partner is liking what he is seeing, and rapidly getting ready to join me.
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Now we are both settled into soaring flight with enough altitude to work with. Even with only 2 of us on the ridge we have to be constantly aware of each other’s location.
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This is a favorite time of day to fly - smooth gentle air, and the settling sun casts long shadows. Every bump, sinkhole and ridge is outlined in shadow.
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This is a flight from a few years back, flying earlier in the day. This is an altitude gain of around 3000 ft. The mountains below are starting to appear flatter. This is not quite at cloudbase, but you can look at the flat bottoms of the clouds and see that I am not that far from it. Depending on other things as well, this can be where you start to have serious thoughts of leaving the home site for a flight to an unknown destination. My highest ever altitude gain was a little over 6000 ft (respectable, but not remarkable in the East - routine in the drier West). I was nearing the bottom of a fairly large cloud, being sure I stayed close to the edge so I could make a run for it. As the lift started getting stronger, I did just that and got out from under the cloud altogether. It would have been quite easy for it to have sucked me up and spit me out at some later time, cold and scared at the very least, if not worse. It was thrilling, but also scary and lonely - being at least a mile away from anything in any direction, and my lifeline being just a few pounds of aluminum and Dacron.
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A GPS track of my most recent flight - nothing dramatic, just “taking the air” on a gentle evening
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A sign we put out for flying events
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With lots of pilots at a Fly In, the owner modified a trailer to carry loads of gliders to the top, thus alleviating vehicle congestion on the mountain top and retrieval hassles.
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Getting set up for my evening flight. My glider is on the right.
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The LZ and Fly In camping area (drone photo). The camping area is on the left, and the mown strips on the side and top of the hill on the right the designated landing areas. This was the day after we flew, with no more flying potential in the forecast, so many people had already left.
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An Amish family owns the LZ (the corn is theirs) and they enjoy hosting the flying activities. Here they are leaving after a nice visit.
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50 Years Ago Today - Martin Luther King Riots

(April 4, 2018) Last October I wrote about the events of 50 years previous (October 1967) that had resulted in my sudden departure from the boonies of Vietnam ( 50 Years Ago Today - Vietnam ). This event is also now 50 years in the past. After a month or so in the medical facilities in Japan, I made it home just in time for Christmas. I had 30 days of leave upon my return, but still had nearly a year of time left in my 3 year enlistment. Before my injury, I had gone to the Public Information Office to see about being a combat photographer. I had done a 6 month extension to get into the Recondos, and I was considering another 9 month extension (in Vietnam, but not the Army). That would bring me back to the states with less than 90 days in my tour, which would have given me an Early Out. If I had to be in the Army, Vietnam seemed preferable to the spit and polish of being on stateside duty. It would be hard to get used to that after the more relaxed discipline of a war zone. But spending months on end humping the boonies was already losing appeal. As a photographer I could still spend time in the boonies, but only for shorter periods with the opportunity to sleep on a real bed between times. I was going to sign the extension papers the next time we came in from the field. Except I found myself on the way to Japan on a medical evacuation before that could happen.

Back in the States, I was on ‘permanent profile’ - which is the Army’s way of saying that my duty was limited by physical/medical conditions. Which certainly meant I was no longer considered fit for jumping out of planes. I could not think of much that was less appealing than dealing with the spit and polish of being a paratrooper on stateside duty, but not being able to jump. So I resigned my jump status and requested a base close to home: Ft Meade, Md. At that point I didn’t really need to use a cane anymore, but I used it anyway, because it helped me get and stay in an office job.

An office job was particularly appealing at the time, because if I hadn’t been in the office, I would have been doing what everyone else was doing - riot control training. The summer of ‘68 we were on riot control standby alert, and had to be ready to roll within hours. ‘Training’ consisted of hours of being side by line in a line, rifles with fixed bayonets held in front of you, and moving together, as a line, yelling “Back!” “Back!”. Hours of this, often in the hot sun, with full gear. Next day, do it again. The office was a really good place to be. I probably had not needed the cane, as they pretty well left me alone anyway. I was the only Nam vet in the company, and I had more stuff hanging off my uniform than the officers. They seemed to be OK with me just riding out my final year in relative comfort.

I think the rest of the guys were kind of happy when Martin Luther King Jr got killed, or at least excited. Not that they had anything against King, but it meant that they would actually get to do something besides walking around in an empty field in the hot sun yelling “Back!”

We were on the road within hours of getting the call. It was evening rush hour, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway was a parking lot. No matter. We had a lot of Armored Personnel Carriers (APC’s) and big trucks and jeeps, none of which cared if they ran on pavement or not. We roared into DC riding in the center grass median strip, raising clouds of dust and kicking dirt and stones over the cars parked in the traffic jam.

As we neared the city it was getting dark, and there was an unnatural orange glow in the direction we were going - which we finally realized was not a sunset, but DC burning. Things were pretty wild when we arrived, fires everywhere, tear gas hung in the air, store front windows were shattered, and there were people yelling, running, and throwing things about everywhere you looked.

Because of my gimp status, I got to ride around with the ‘command unit’ - running radios and the like. So, I had a front row seat, but did not have to get out and mix it up with the rioters. There was never any question of the outcome, but some people on both sides took hard knocks and bruises.

On the one hand, this was kind of low level compared to where I’d just come from. Nobody was getting shot or bombed - this was more like a big brawl - yet it was still doing familiar Army sorts of things.

But, on the other hand, it was surreal. Nam was a place far away, so war kinds of things were also supposed to be ‘far away’. At least in my mind they had been, until then. Suddenly it seemed like Nam had followed me home. This kind of stuff didn’t happen ‘here’…

It became apparent that in many ways ‘here’ was not much different from ‘there’. Lawless happens fast. It seemed like everywhere there were burning buildings, broken glass, wrecked cars, looters, and angry people.

We spent the night in the halls of some school, sleeping on the floor. The guys who had been actually mixing it up on the streets began pulling their own loot out of their packs. Mostly stuff like bottles of liquor, which got passed around when no one was looking. A few guys had things like miniature TV’s stuffed in their packs. And everyone telling their stories about various experiences. There is only one story that I recall now, and that was a couple of guys talking about watching some DC cops loading a big TV in a paddy wagon…

I think we spent a couple more days in DC after that, but it was mostly over after that first night. Not to necessarily say it was calm, but with the Army in the streets there wasn’t too much anyone could do.

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For us grunts this wasn’t much about any great event having happened. It had just been a break from the monotonous training to go off and have a little adventure and some stories to tell afterwards. After that, there were no more adventures for the rest of the year. We stayed on alert the entire hot summer. The closest we had to time off was being on ‘6 hr’ alert. We were split in rotating thirds. One third was on 2-hr alert, which meant we had to be ready to be rolling in two hours, 24 hours a day. On 2 hour alert you couldn’t even leave the base. 4-hr alert gave you a little breathing room, but you had to be contactable, and close by. 6-hr status meant you could go to Washington or Baltimore, and even spend the night, so long as they had a phone number for you. The days for most of the guys were spent walking around yelling “Back! Back”, or practicing things like putting gas masks on quickly and getting inspected.

For me it was easy. My grandmother still lived in the house I grew up in, less than 10 miles from the base. I was granted a ‘hardship’ status for taking care of an elderly relative and was able to stay with her, even on 2hr status. I couldn’t leave her place on 2hr status, but once I had hit the liquor store I had no reason to. I drank a lot of beer that summer. I had returned from Nam a lean 168 lbs. By the end of that year I was up to 215 - a definite case of Body By Budweiser (or maybe it was Schlitz). I’ve never been even close to that heavy since.

Came cooler Fall days, the riot alert was lifted, and I was looking at my exit from the Army in December. At the end I guess at least one old Sargent thought I had been getting by too easy. I had been carefully planning my haircuts in order to be able to leave the Army with the best possible start on the head of long hair I intended on growing as soon as I got out. I tried to time it so it would be just on the long side of ‘regulation’ when I exited. It was not to be. On that last day this old sarge refused to sign a critical paper until I had gotten a burr cut. OK, that’s fine - just remind me one more time how much I love the Army. You may have me this one last time scumbag, but nevermore!

For me, the King riots were not that big of an event compared to stuff that happened in Nam. But they had an impact none the less. They removed any illusion I might have still had that things like that couldn’t happen in the US. After that I knew they can happen anywhere, and a whole lot faster than seems believable.

Image in this post from http://commons.wikim … gtonDC_MLK_riots.jpg

50 Years ago - A sudden end to my time in Vietnam

(Oct 26, 2017) Fifty years ago today, October 26, 1967, my time in the boonies of Vietnam came to a sudden end.

I don’t remember feeling anything other than the sensation that a gray wall had hit and surrounded me, followed by a sensation of flying. There was no sound. It was the first time I learned that a sudden violent death would be painless – you only feel pain if you survive. Three of us were put on the Medevac chopper out of the boonies on that day.

I had been fresh out of high school and bored with a mundane job. There was some news and a few songs about some war somewhere. Sounded like an adventure, and more interesting than what I was doing. I enlisted in the Army in December 1965, signed up for Airborne (paratrooper) training, and volunteered for Vietnam. I arrived in June 1966, assigned to the 101st Airborne Division.

When I arrived at the Screaming Eagle base camp for processing, my name was called and I was told I was going to be an MP(!) WTF? I had trained and volunteered as infantry. Tough luck kid, you’re an MP now. That was not acceptable. I had hung out with the Bad Boys in high school, and many of my friends from then ended up doing things like joining the Pagans Motorcycle Club, or just getting in trouble and arrested on their own – the last thing I wanted to do was be a cop!!

But an MP I became, much as I hated it. I did take pride that in 10 months I never wrote a single citation. At least some of the duty was going out in a gun jeep to accompany the engineers on their morning mine sweeps on the roads outside of town, and that was closer to what I had signed on for.

They had a deal where you could extend your time in Vietnam (but not the Army) by six months, and get an extra 30 days leave you could take anywhere in the world. You would almost certainly get your choice of assignment as well. I extended for the Recondo platoon of the 2nd Battalion of the 502nd Infantry Regiment (mostly referred to over there simply as the “O Deuce”), which was part of the 101st. That did the trick.

One afternoon towards the end of May, 1967, I was preparing to go on MP duty when the Sarge walked into the tent and told me that someone else would take my duty - I was now assigned to the Recondos. They were short and needed people immediately, and the paperwork would get dealt with later. Get on over to the 2/502 area - a supply helicopter would take me out to the Boonies to join the Recondos in an hour!!

I threw all my belongings into a duffel bag and rushed over to the 2/502 Headquarters area. They started throwing gear at me - rucksack, M-16, grenades, C-rations, ammunition, canteens - all the while telling me to hurry up - the chopper was idling on the pad waiting for me. I was stuffing gear into the ruck sack, my pockets, anywhere it would fit - Hurry Up Kid!

Finally I had all my gear packed or hanging off of me and I tried to put the ruck sack on and get up. I couldn’t budge it! OK, now I know what’s going on - they’re messing with the New Guy - trying to make him think he’s got to carry all this stuff. Good joke guys, now what am I really supposed to be taking with me? Dumb Ass!! Get on that chopper - we don’t have all day to wait for your lame ass! Oh my God - I really am supposed to carry all this stuff!! I used my rifle and a tent pole to help me get to my feet, and then staggered to the chopper with the 100 lb plus load.

No sooner was I in the chopper than it lifted off, before I had even a chance to sit down or get myself to what I felt was a secure position. I don’t remember the ride at all - just the slowly but surely dawning realization that .. I .. really .. was .. about .. to .. be .. in .. the .. Recondos. Was this reaaalllly what I wanted to do? Mostly I was just shocked, surprised, and very very intimidated. 02_VN09_PickupDay_v1_s.jpg

The chopper landed in a temporary LZ as the last supply chopper of the day, just as dusk was starting to fall. Everyone grabbed supplies off the chopper then we immediately moved out to get to a night time position.

“Hi, I’m …” SSSHHHHH! Dumb Ass Cherry - Shut UP! Don’t you know anything about noise discipline!?!?

And that was my Welcome to the Recondos.

From the O Deuce web site ( http://2nd502.org ) description of our operations in Vietnam:
“The historical average ‘time in combat’ for WWII Infantry Soldiers was 40 days, and in Vietnam they give 240 days as the norm or average. In the O Deuce the norm was much closer to 330 days - in a 365 day tour. We lived ‘in the bush’, and saw the rear area for only a couple of days at a time, often a month or more apart.“

About every second or third day we would secure a hilltop or other area to use as an LZ, and helicopters would bring us fresh food and ammunition, mail, a hot meal, and other supplies. We had only the single set of jungle fatigues we wore, and when we wore them out they’d give us a new set. That usually only took a couple of weeks. Freshly supplied with C-rations (in cans), rifle and machine gun ammunition, grenades, claymores, C-4, trip flares, and lots of water, the average load would go above 100 lbs. Some, like the medics and radio operators, carried even heavier loads.

Between supply days we lived quietly in the jungle, “humping the boonies” all day up and down mountains, then pulling guard duty at night in 3 man positions (1 hr on, 2 off). You never had enough sleep, and could sleep anywhere, anytime if given the chance. Every few weeks you’d get two or three days back in the forward base camp. Those times were devoted to sleep and drunken trips to the local town. When the infantry came in out of the bush, in dirty and torn fatigues, smelling bad, and with a hell of an attitude, the rear echelon folks mostly just stayed out of our way. They knew that in a couple of days we would be back on the choppers with monumental hangovers, heading back to the bush, and things would quiet down again.
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Between the time I joined the Recondos and left the boonies for good was about 5 months. I was fortunate that the worst of what the war had to offer somehow passed me by, although at times only narrowly. When we went to relieve another company of the O Deuce after they had been decimated the night before, it was only a short walk from where we had spent the night. When I took my leave that was granted for the extension, I returned to find few familiar faces. While I had been back in the US my Recondo platoon had walked into a large ambush that only a few escaped from without at least being wounded.

Even though I never saw the worst of it, I did see men die – both ours and theirs. Some things I have been proud to have experienced and shared with my Vietnam Brothers, others not so much so. No matter how you look at it, war is an ugly business. You see both the best and the worst of what people can be. What made this war worse is that it was never clear who was friend and who was enemy.

But the greatest part of our time was spent in tedium – humping up this mountain and down that one, wading through rice paddies or cutting our way through dense growth – continuously hunted by mosquitoes and leeches, or being soaked by rain that sometimes seemed it would never stop. Some nights we would be setting up our guard positions and see ourselves surrounded by leeches on the vegetation. They sensed our presence and in every direction you’d see them inching their way towards you. Time to tuck pants legs securely into boots, roll down sleeves, and pull out the insect repellent. Rain during the day was miserable enough, but even worse at night. The total of our sleeping gear was a poncho and a very thin quilted thing called a poncho liner. Vietnam may be a hot place, but sleeping soaked on a hillside with water flowing under and around you was shiveringly cold.

Some of our losses just seemed a complete waste. A well respected squad leader was walking down a slight hill on a resupply day, talking to one of my good friends. Because of the slope, the blade from the helicopter further down the hill hit his head. My buddy said he dropped like a sack of potatoes in mid-sentence. He didn’t die immediately, but because of the nature of the injury, everyone considered it a blessing when the news came back that he had died later. During a thunderstorm, one of our radio operators was killed by a lighting strike on his antenna.

I believe my most terrifying night came after we found an NVA training camp late in the day. We captured an officer and some maps and other papers, but most of the NVA slipped away before we could get them. We set up a position down the hill from the camp (which was on a hill top). Several other guys and I were in a “forward listening post” - up the steep hill from the rest of the Recondos. The only piece of ground flat enough to set up a position on had a tunnel opening next to it. It was a long and tense night – waiting for someone to pop up out of that hole – and unknown things rolling down the hill towards us. Rocks? Grenades? Could the steep hillside be that unstable, or was someone trying to get us to fire to reveal our positions? Fortunately none of those things came to pass, and I don’t know that I have ever been so glad to see the first light of dawn appearing.

My last day was mostly taken up doing Search and Destroy. 06_VN49_s_s.jpg We were in an area that we were told was sympathetic to the VC, and our mission was to eliminate support. Rice was destroyed, houses searched for weapons and burned. About the middle of the day we took sniper fire from a nearby ridge top. Rather than go after the sniper, we sheltered behind rocks and trees, took a break, and called in artillery on the ridge. That quieted things down and we continued on our mission.

That evening we went up on the ridge to set up our night position. The ridge was undulating, with little peaks every 100 yards or so. It was still a few hours before dark, and we started setting up our positions around one of the small peaks. We had just started digging into our rucks when the word came to move to the next knob. Grumble grumble – typical military. On the next knob we again started getting settled in. Then word came down, one more move! By this time we were pretty fed up, and in our irritation we probably weren’t paying as much attention as we should have.

I had three positions/jobs I normally walked, Point, Slack, and sometimes machine gun. Point man is the first guy in line, and he picks the trail and is the group’s eyes at the front. Slack man walks behind Point, and they work as a team. If, coming into a clearing, the Point man looks left, then the Slack man looks right. The job is basically to “take up the slack” for Point. I probably spent the greatest part of my time in the Slack position, as I was that evening. Bob Rera was on Point, and Eric Sanders, the RTO (radio) guy was behind me. 07_VN41m_s.jpg

The ridge was mostly covered in low brush. You could see over most of it, but it was hard to walk through it without having it rubbing against you. Apparently the trip wire was not visible to Bob, at least in our annoyance, and he probably would not have felt it with all the other brush rubbing against him. We later determined it was probably an American grenade with the normal 5 second fuse delay. Bob hit the trip wire and kept going. Apparently I had just passed it by a couple of feet when it went off.

After being enveloped by the silent gray wall and the flying feeling, I found myself laying on the ground. Purple smoke was billowing everywhere. I realized that a smoke grenade I had been carrying on the outside of my gear had been set off. I began to realize that the burning smoke grenade was attached to a belt with real grenades and live ammo, and it was time to get it away from me. Whether or not I actually stood I can’t recall, but I did get upright enough to fling the belt away before falling back and yelling “Medic”. 08_BobReraFB_s.jpg

“Doc” Rizzi got to me very quickly, and after looking me over gave me a shot of morphine. I found out that three of us had been hit – Bob, the Point man, and Eric, the RTO. Eric wasn’t noticed immediately. He had been blown off to the side of the trail into some brush, and some shrapnel had gone through his throat, so he couldn’t talk. It wasn’t until somebody wanted his radio that they realized he was missing, after which he was found. But there was a several minute delay in treatment for which Doc (who is a good friend to this day) still beats himself up over. 09_VN39m_s2.jpg

It was still daylight and clear, and the Medevac helicopter was there in a short time to take the three of us out of the field. I heard sometime afterwards that someone had been shooting at our chopper as we were flying out. 10_VN32FBcrop_s.jpg

Back in the triage area of the field hospital (big tents) some high ranking officers came to visit us and gave us cigarettes and attaboys. Except for Eric – last I saw of him they were doing something to his throat like a tracheotomy before hurriedly wheeling him away. I shortly followed him into surgery and awoke late at night with bandages all over me, and a bad case of diarrhea. I yelled for the orderly to get me a bed pan quick. He moved with great speed, telling me to Hold It! - but he was too late. That was a miserable experience for both of us.

I think I remained in country for only another day before I was flown to a hospital in the Phillipines where I spent a night, then continued on to Japan to the hospital in Camp Zama. It was a special transport plane with nothing but rows of racks for stretchers stacked perhaps 3 or 4 high. I spent about a month in Japan before coming back to the US.

Back on the ridge the rest of the guys were trying to get the guy that had been shooting at our helicopter, and getting ready for the night. Another good friend that I kept up with afterwards told me that he had walking along the ridge when a friend of his grabbed him and yanked him violently backwards. What the Hell? His friend just pointed. Then he saw the tripwire that he had been just inches from hitting. That one was disarmed before it could get anyone else, and it was probably identical to the one that got us – American grenade with the pin nearly pulled, attached to a trip wire. They realized that the sniper fire earlier in the day had likely been a ploy to get us to come up and chase him – and run into those booby traps. That hadn’t worked, but then we’d stumbled into them later on anyway.

Bob had only gotten a few pieces of shrapnel in his butt, and he was soon out in the boonies again. He was KIA in a firefight four months later. My right leg had gotten most of the damage, although my right shoulder, left leg and chest caught some shrapnel too. One of the bones in my right ankle was broken, and there was a big hole in the back of my thigh. Looking at a photo taken of me just days before the injury, I can see that I had shrapnel in just about every part of my body that had not been shielded by equipment or the angle of the blast. They told me my rucksack had been totally shredded and destroyed, but it had protected me from the worst of the blast. One bit of grim satisfaction from that was that apparently several cans of the C-rations knows as Ham and MF’s (the MF’s were Lima beans - yes they were that bad) had been completely shredded. 11_VN51_s_s.jpg

Arriving on the ward in Camp Zama I realized how well off I was compared to some of the other guys. Full body casts, pieces missing, moans of pain. Looking at a picture of us on that ward, we look like we should have been freshmen on a campus somewhere – kids too young to have seen and done the things we had.

Our head nurse was “Mother”, and she commanded fear and respect. I realize now what a good hearted soul she was, but she was also dealing with a bunch of young guys, and had to maintain some control. 12_VN52_s_s.jpg Your first “mission” on the ward was to deliver three stool samples, and you’d best not dally. If she felt you weren’t delivering soon enough, Mother and the enema would be coming your way! I’m not sure why they were necessary – nearly everyone who had been in the boonies was loaded with intestinal parasites. Maybe they just needed to identify which particular ones you had before treatment. Treatment consisted of a couple of large pills which made me very high for a good part of a day. I don’t know what they were, but when I asked for more they said no chance – they were tightly controlled.
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Recovery was mostly uneventful – some torturous physical therapy (some involving electrodes), but no complications, excepting one. The bottom of my foot began hurting, and the pain was always there. Pain killers did little to ease it, and the docs were skeptical because there was no injury apparent. It turned out that some nerves had been damaged with that big hole in the back of my thigh, and the pain of those nerves healing was being referred to my foot. It wasn’t agonizing pain, perhaps 4 to 6, but it never went away – it was there every waking minute, and would keep me awake much of the night. That kind of pain can really wear you down. Eventually a spinal block brought some relief.

From the hospital ward I went to a rehab ward, where you could get passes to town and wear civilian clothes now and then. I went on some of the greatest binges of my life on that ward. One entire weekend was totally lost to me, and I only reconstructed it from tales my buddies told me. The real hangover didn’t even hit until Tuesday.

I arrived back home not long before Christmas 1967. Because I was on limited duty I resigned my Airborne status (I could no longer jump) for a duty station closer to home. My last year of duty was mostly quiet except for one significant event – which is another story.

I had plenty of time to reflect on chance and what a difference minor details can make. Of the 3 of us, I had been closest to the grenade when it went off, and I received a load of shrapnel. But because of my equipment and the angle to it, I got off amazingly easy. If it had gone off a second earlier, my unshielded front side would have taken the blast, and the outcome certainly would not have been nearly as good. Then there was that smoke grenade on my belt. I actually had 4 grenades on my belt – 3 real ones, and that smoke grenade. What if it had been switched to a different position on my belt? Maybe I would have had a grenade with a dent in it. Or I wouldn’t be here writing this.

Then there was Eric. He was facing the booby-trap when it went off, and caught shrapnel all over his unprotected front side. But the worst was one piece of shrapnel that went through his throat and damaged his spine. The last time I saw him he was in Walter Reed Hospital in DC, clamped in one of those sandwich frames where they can flip you regularly. I sort of kept in touch with him with a couple of phone calls over the years, but I was scared to ask too many questions – I was afraid that he had been living his life as a quadriplegic. Unfortunately, he died in 2008 before I had a chance to see him again at a reunion. His sister later told me that he had had a full life with reasonable mobility. Even though he needed a wheelchair to get around, he had had a hot car (with hand controls) that he would get in trouble racing on the street, as well as lots of lady friends. Finding that out was a great relief to me. 16_VN77_s_s.jpg

And of course Bob, who had only superficial wounds, but ended up back in the field only to die there.

Fifty years is a long time. And yet it is not.

Frozen Bubbles

Way back about 30 years ago, when I was a passionate and dedicated hang gliding Instructor, (with passionate and dedicated students), I only had an East facing training hill, which limited the number of days we could get out.

One of the ways we increased the number of training days was to get out very early and set up the gliders before the sun rose enough to hit the hill (which was a little bit later than actual sunrise). Then, when the sun first hit the hill, there would often be a little bit of upslope flow that would allow for a few flights before whatever the prevailing direction for the day set in.

The flow was so light that often the windflags would not stir enough to give any reliable indicator of direction, so I used soap bubbles to find suitable launch windows. Yes, Virginia, it is harder to launch in “still air” when the bubbles are going down the hill than when they are going up the hill. frozenbubbles.jpg

As it turned out, the soap bubbles provided a fair amount of entertainment beyond the flying activities of the day. They allowed new students to better visualize air flow. Blow bubbles upwind of a glider wing and watch the ones above the wing speed up while the ones below slow down - to provide an excellent demonstration of the Bernoulli effect. Or watch the airflow (and turbulence) around obstacles and terrain features. And then there were other surprising things that were pretty cool - like a bubble hitting a dew-drenched thistle. Instead of popping the bubble, it would often come to rest with the sharp thistle points inside of, or even poking through it.

As it also turned out, we ended up blowing bubbles on some very cold mornings, which brings us to the point of this long winded post. When it was well below freezing, the newly blown bubbles would transition fairly rapidly from clear to milky and opaque. When one popped it did not disappear as they normally do, but simply deflated, like a balloon with no air, and would then flutter to the ground.

No longer being a dedicated instructor (neither part any longer applies :-), it has been a long time since I have seen, or even
thought of, frozen bubbles. Fortunately, Jean thought about them on this cold morning, and a balcony off of a warm living room gave ample opportunity to play and take photos of frozen bubbles, as you can see in this collage.

High School Days

(Written late at night to some younger friends while my wife was out of town) I was sitting here going idly surfing before bed… Came across a movie sound track and one thing led to another. It (Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket) had one track that played a key role in my (mis-spent) youth (high school version). And that led me to a couple of others that also figured prominently. Not all that sure why you’d care, except perhaps as a glimpse into a long-ago time ;-)
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Anyhow, in high school (’65) I had a ‘56 Chevy convertible, which I thought was a pretty cool set of wheels. There were no tape decks (or even FM radio) then, just a few Top 40 AM stations to listen to. Sears had a car record player that played 45 rpm records. It actually did a pretty good job and didn’t skip unless you hit really big bumps, like rail road tracks. There was also no stereo then, but you could ‘enhance’ the mono tracks with a ‘reverberator’ (basically a tunable-delay echo track). Richard_64.jpg I imagine today that would be done electronically, but back then it got the delay by vibrating one end of a spring, then picking up the signal at the other end of the spring. It also had it’s own amplifier, so between the player and the reverb you could generate some respectable (for the time) volume. Although the same railroad tracks that would cause the record player to skip would also cause the reverb spring to hit something, adding some extra loud echoing twangs to the noise.

In case you have not yet gotten the idea that these were different times, perhaps this pic of yours truly from about that time will help clarify ;-) On weekends there were about 3 or 4 of us that would regularly get together to ‘raise hell’. We were still trying to figure out exactly how to do that, but we were getting some pretty good OJT by investing in large quantities of beer and then sort of letting things work themselves out from there.
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2010 Vietnam Reunion

(Written August 16, 2010) Jean and I just got back from my 4th Viet Nam reunion. We had attended my first-ever reunion in 2004, which was also the first reunion of my Recondo platoon in over 20 years. That was a memorable event ( http://wind-drifter. … Nam/ReconReunion.php ). In 2006 the first reunion of the 2/502 Infantry Battalion (101st Airborne Div) was held, and we went to that too (the Recondos were part of the 2/502). They had been having yearly reunions through the early 80’s, then the guy who had been organizing them died, and his wife had thrown out all the records (which were simply index cards back then) - and no one had tried to put things together again until a couple of guys organized the one in 2006. That was held in conjunction with the larger 101st semi-annual reunion. It was also where I agreed to take over setting up a new web page ( http://2nd502.org ), and so became much more involved. This was the second reunion since then, both of which were held together with the 101st reunion.

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Our numbers have grown, and there were 190 guys from the “O Deuce” alone signed up for this reunion, with many more on our roster who didn’t make it. Together with the other 101st vets, there may have been close to 1000 guys at this Indianapolis reunion, including a number of vets from World War II and Korea. These two guys were from the Easy Company that was featured in Band of Brothers:

They were a hoot - the guy on the right was a tiny little shriveled and bent gnome of a guy - and they both were running around looking like trouble searching for a place to happen. They had a lot, if not all, of their meals paid for by other vets at the local restaurant.

This was a year that a lot of loose ends and stories came together. Late Friday night, all seven of us from the Recondo platoon that were sitting at a table figured out that we had all served together for at least a few months in the summer of 67 (the Recondos typically operated at ~40-50 guys total).
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