An experience from a previous life…just yesterday.
After 17 months of jumping through the many hoops of U.S. Army basic training, flight school, electronic warfare and jungle survival schools I was at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware climbing the aluminum staircase to board a World Airways, DC -8 for a flight to South Vietnam.
At the top of the stairs, I turned and gave a final wave to my wife, my parents and my youngest sister. I was off for the adventure of my life...along with 300 or so other lucky souls.
We were told to take a seat and get comfortable. I don’t recall being particularly nervous or scared. I actually remember very little about that flight. I don't recall receiving a briefing. Not an estimate of the length of the flight, when we might arrive or what to expect once we got there. We weren’t even told about the planned refueling stops in Anchorage, Alaska and Osaka, Japan. We were cargo, so I guess we didn't need to know.
Several hours after departure we landed in Anchorage, Alaska to refuel. I had never been to Alaska, so I thought that was pretty cool. Although, it was dark and we were there just long enough to refuel and grab a sandwich in the airport terminal. The same goes for our stop in Osaka, Japan. First time out of the United States but no time to explore. Off we went on what turned out to be our final leg.
The cargo was quiet. Nothing happened that stood out. Thinking back many years later it was what didn’t happen that is the most memorable. I don’t remember any one person on the flight. I don’t remember talking to anyone on the flight. I don’t remember who sat next to me or where I was seated. Was it an aisle seat? A window? I just don’t remember.
The only thing seared in my memory are my initial thoughts after the pilot announced we were about to cross the coast of South Vietnam, just north of Cam Rahn Bay.
That announcement got everyone’s attention and except for the few guys who had previously been to Vietnam and thought it was no big deal, we all strained for a view out the windows to get our first look at the place we had heard so much about and where we would be spending the next several months.
I don’t know what I expected, but what I saw was what looked like a tropical paradise. Ocean waves breaking along the rocky shoreline with a beach littered with trees that looked like palm or banana trees. It looked like a beautiful vacation spot, not a combat zone.
Then it hit me. As beautiful as this place appeared, it was populated by people who didn’t know me but would like to see me dead.
That thought was sobering.
In reflection, I am happy to live in a country so isolated from danger that as an invincible 22 year old, I noticed the difference.
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