My heart was pounding so hard with joy I thought it would leap from my chest as I eased back on the control stick and the wheels of my airplane left the ground that crisp Mississippi morning. The cool air swirling through the cockpit bearing the hardy incense of exhaust and hot oil made me so exhilarated I almost couldn't stand it.
"I'm flying," I shouted into the wind. "I'm flying," I yelled over the marvelous thunder of the big engine that roared in my ears and resonated in my gut. "I'm flying," I yelled as I slid the gear lever up and the hydraulics did my bidding and neatly tucked the wheels into the belly of the yellow T-6. "I'm flying," I yelled one more time as I reluctantly slid the canopy forward and closed out the wind. I was airborne on an elation I had never felt before.
And so began the first day, the first real day, of my life as a flyer. It was the day I first soloed an airplane, the first step on the path of a dream to become a fighter pilot.
I was a 20-year old kid from Minnesota and, like the thousands before me and the thousands since, I had just experienced that unique moment that pilots know only once. It was a moment filled with a mixture of pride and apprehension, elation and anxiety, thrill coupled with chill. Not the fear-chill of injury or death, it was the chill of failure, of being grounded, of not making the grade, of not being a member of that great society of military aviators, of men who span the sky with impunity.
Since that unforgettable day, I have lifted from the ground many times in many climes and always with zest and passion. Coupled with those emotions (and it became more and more important as the years spun by) was the comradeship of the men who shared the same exquisite joy of lifting off from yet another runway on yet another mission.
It doesn't start out so lofty. A student pilot's situational awareness starts very small. During his first few rides his mind is in the cockpit, concentrating only on how and where he should place the controls. Soon comes awareness outside the cockpit; where he is, where he is going, what is happening in the sky around him. Later, after years of schooling and practice, a higher order takes over enabling his control movements and instrument crosschecks to be as automatic and reliable as breathing. His mind is outside the cockpit, well ahead of his airplane as he leads men in combat, synchronizes with other flights, avoids enemy guns yet dives in to hit the target then get his men back home. He has long been aware these fellow aviators, these gallant men, have become as much a part of his flying life as the airplane itself.
Then comes that awful day when he loses one of these men, and so starts the unwanted and unforeseen pain that no one ever told him about. This is when maturity draws it first line on a face marked only by sun joy and cloud mirth.
All this had happened to me and I was indelibly marked. Yet never did I plan to be a writer. Like many others, I saved things; pictures, mission cards, odd notices and regulations (NO TAC PILOT WILL FLY MORE THAN 8+20 PER MONTH). But write? Me? No. Those items were merely tangible memorabilia. And I never realized I had so much more stored in the depths of my mind.
Then one rainy night in the BOQ at Ubon I wrote a letter to my cousin Sue about what it was like to fly night combat missions on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Later, when that tour was over, I sent a copy to Bud Mahurin's Fighter Pilot's Association for their magazine. A USAF public affairs officer read it and encouraged me to expand upon the theme. I did and The Air Force Magazine published it. Encouraged, I went on to write more articles about combat for the magazine while on active duty.
After I retired I wrote pilot reports on foreign aircraft for an overseas defense journal. Later, I co-authored three flying novels with a published writer. Then it all changed. A Special Forces friend in the publishing business gave my name to a friend who wanted to become an agent. The new agent read some of my material, telephoned, and said he thought I should write a novel of the USAF in the Vietnam War.
For several months I resisted his suggestion, after all, I wasn't a writer. Writers possessed a tradecraft of which I knew nothing about. Writers wrote stories that had a beginning and a middle and an end. Writers were the Clancys and W.E.B. Griffins and John D. McDonalds who knew what gerunds and allegories were. So I held back -- part inertia, part fear. Although the agent's idea nibbled at my mind, it was not powerful enough to convince me I was a writer that could ever get published. Then I read a review of Griffin's latest book, Semper Fi. The reviewer marveled at Griffin's versatility in writing about the Marines after completing an 8-book series about the United States Army. "Griffin will probably write a book about pilots," the reviewer concluded.
That did it. The review flew up in the air, I grabbed my portable, ran out the door, and checked into the Quantico BOQ for eleven days. (I needed the seclusion of that BOQ room to focus all my energies. I lived on a horse farm and there was always something to do.) I had received the kick in the pants I needed to overcome what I decided was my fear-induced ennui. I was, after all, a fighter pilot, and fighter pilots press on.
I started typing (two-fingered, I'm not a typist) and soon had a 250-page outline and sample chapters for not one but three novels. I simply could not cram all the memories that bubbled to the surface in one book. After some changes, my agent soon had three major houses bidding for the property (I was learning the jargon). We accepted an offer from the Putnam/Berkeley Group. I saw with delight they also published Tom Clancy and W.E.B. Griffin. In fact I wound up with their editor, Neil Nyron.
The day I signed the contract I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. "My gosh," I thought. "I've conned these guys into thinking I'm a writer." I just knew writers leap out of bed each morning like galvanized eels charged with enthusiasm and inspiration. After all, real writers are people who can hardly wait to put pen to paper or fingers to keys seven days a week.
I wasn't that way at all. Writing comes hard to me. But, I sat down and wrote. After all, I am a fighter pilot, and fighter pilots press on.
And I pressed on because I became consumed with an overwhelming desire to tell the story of the men who gave so much of themselves in the Vietnam War, the most unpopular war in American history. I wrote because I wanted these men to live in more than the minds of their loved ones or their comrades, I wanted them to live in the minds of the next generations and to inspire those who are considering joining the military or the civilian aviation community. I wanted them to live in the minds and inspire anyone who wants to read of real Americans. I wanted to pass on the legacy of these fine and gallant aviators and ground troops who gave so much.
I wanted to write of the military flyers and of the superb aircraft they took into battle bearing proud callsigns now burned in fire in our halls of history; the Thuds and Sandys, Phantom and Jolly Green, Dustoff and Spectre, Misty, Laredo and Wolf, Candlestick and Hobo; the list is endless. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and our allies from Australia and New Zealand, Thailand and Korea, who flew so loyally by our sides. And of the Vietnamese pilots and crewmen who fought so desperately to save their country from the communist invader.
But there is the dark side of why I am a military writer. The dark side that surfaces in untoward moments when bad memories spring unbidden from a well I try to keep capped. Moments when others, not of the sky, hear my harsh laughter and see the frost in my eyes. It is the side that bears extreme malice and near-consuming rage toward those who wasted the lives of my fellow airmen on missions that accomplished little except strengthen the enemy's resolve. Missions that gratified only the arrogant civilian Caesars who, at White House luncheons, picked not only the targets but the bomb loads and the ingress and egress routes as well. It is the side that detests those members of the media who trivialized and scorned our efforts; it is the side that despises that wretched movie female who sat at an enemy antiaircraft gun, made broadcasts from Hanoi, and called our tortured POWs liars; it is the side that bears hard anger toward some of our own men in uniform who saw war only as a career enhancing program. It is also of these contemptible people I am compelled to write.
I have three principal characters in my books: two Air Force and one Special Forces soldier. There are many strong supporting characters that range in rank from sergeant to three-star generals. Civilians span from the President of the United States through CIA officials, ambassadors to politicians, and an ubiquitous, extremely liberal newsman who is the half-brother of the USAF pilot. The females are all strong women who are involved in the war and who are able to separate the war from the warriors they love.
All my characters are composites of people I have known, talked to, or researched in books. Not so the politicians. They are real and all their damning sentences written in the series are words they uttered sometime during their lives. My books might be called works of fiction, but it is thinly disguised historical fiction.
And so I am driven, but I've had help. I have once again sat around the table with old friends, and many new ones, who told me their stories. Stories accompanied by laughter and sometimes tears, but always stories told with the fervor of the dedicated aviator. Men who can face their God and their leaders and say with quiet pride, "I did my job."
We who fly are a self-perpetuating breed. We belong to one of the rare professions that people join for the joy and fun and challenge, not for the money. You don't get rich in the military and you don't learn how to get rich in the military, but you become rich with the experience and joy of military living and flying. Unlike stock brokers or lawyers, no one becomes a pilot to become rich. We become pilots because of the richness of the skies.
So it is with writing. No one starts to write to become rich. It is not a sufficient motive. If riches and fame follow, then, like flying, it is the icing on a very rich cake.
I've had enormous luck. Luck to live through it all and luck to be able to write of it all, and to write of those men. They're out there now, you know, our lost comrades, the flyers we were privileged to sit with around the table at Spangdahlem and Ubon, Alex and Bien Hoa. They're out there now, somewhere beyond our eyes, beyond the clouds, rolling and soaring in towering cathedrals flying beautiful airplanes that need only the fuel of their love.
These are the men I honor; these are the men I must write about. Men who gave their all for their craft, their fellow warriors, and, without hesitation, their life for their country because they trusted their cause and their leaders.
Berent writes of these men in his the five-book "Wings of War" Vietnam airwar series that exposes the horrendous effect politics played during the entire conflict. The first book, "Rolling Thunder," is FREE for all ereaders (Kindle, Kobo, Nook, iTunes, etc). He is also has written numerous articles for all ereaders, most FREE, of his combat experiences.
For questions or comments contact Mark Berent at firstname.lastname@example.org
See his web page at www.vietnamwarpolitics.com
Author Bio: Mark Berent had three tours of combat in Southeast Asia and is the holder of the Silver Star, two DFCs, the Bronze Star, numerous Air Medals, the Legion of Merit, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. In his first tour he flew F-100s with the 531st TFS at Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam. Two years later, he returned as an F-4 pilot, assigned to the only all-night-flying outfit in SEA, the 497th TFS at Ubon RTAFB, Thailand. While there, he also commanded the Forward Air Controller unit called the Wolf FACs. His third tour was in Cambodia flying things with propellers on them plus he earned Cambodian jump wings and pilot wings.