Stand By Me…

I was fifteen years old when I saw my first dead human being… outside of the sterile environment of a funeral home casket, that is. Just like the slightly younger main character of the movie Stand By Me, which was based on a story by Stephen King.

Due to my profession, I have not only seen but handled hundreds of dead bodies. Young and old. Male and female. Rich and dirt poor. Clean, warm deaths in beds at home with family close and medicated comfort. Cold, nasty deaths with no warning on dirty pavement and fluttering yellow police tape.

In short, I’ve seen a lot.

But you never forget the first. I remember the sights, the smells, the temperature. Everything.

A bit of backstory: As a teen, I was a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, which is the civilian branch of the Air Force. One of CAP’s main missions is search and rescue. In fact, they run about 90% of domestic aircraft search and rescue operations in the country.

Several times during my time in, I was called away from home in the middle of the night to go find an aircraft that went missing, or chase the ghost of a distress signal from an aircraft’s ELT (emergency locator transmitter).

On my first time out, we found a plane. And a body.

I got the call around 8pm. Our team picked me up and off we went into the hills of Southern Missouri.

We drove up and down backcountry washboard roads chasing the ELT signal with our equipment.

But the damn signals bounce off the hills, diverting us off on several wild ghost hunts.

We drove and searched for about 10 hours, listening carefully for the signal to get stronger or weaker. I had the harsh smell of our search vehicle’s burning clutch stuck in my nose all night.

Just as we thought we might have triangulated the location, the signal would get weak or disappear completely.

You always have the hope that the planes occupants might just be sitting on the ground waiting for you to show up, maybe a little beat up or hurt. I could almost see the relieved look on their faces when they see us walking up.

As we bounced through the dark backroads and one hour vanished into the next, my hope faded.

Just after sunrise, the State Highway Patrol sent up a helicopter to the area that our signals were the strongest. Within an hour, they had located possible debris on a hillside a short distance from where we were searching. The chopper pilot had radioed in the location of a dirt road that would get us to within 100 yards of the site.

We flew down the highway until we found the road. A battered metal trash can lay discarded along the highway. We stopped so we could mark the road for the other teams and rescue personnel. I righted the can and tied my orange safety vest to it. I wasn’t moving as fast as I should have, dreading what was waiting for us down the road. A fellow team member hollered from the vehicle for me to hurry up, that people could be dying.

But I knew, somehow, that there was no grateful pilot waiting for us. I just knew it, but I can’t explain how.

We pulled down as far as we could. We humped our packs down to a clearing and started seeing pieces of metal. Not big pieces, but suitcase-sized.

And then I saw the fuselage with the full accordion treatment. I glanced up at the trees. There was no swath of broken branches or decapitated trees in any direction. So the plane didn’t glide into the trees, it nosedived right into the hillside.

My eyes scoured the terrain, looking for a victim. But I noticed that no one else was looking.

“Does anyone have eyes on the pilot?” I asked.

He’s about three feet to your left, under the fuselage, came the reply.

I had almost kicked him while I was walking past the wreckage. I knelt down in the dirt to look closer.

The impact had folded him up and driven him into the dirt. Only the back of his light blue nylon warmup jacket was visible. And the back of his head and neck. A single dried rivulet of blood had made its way from his hairline down to the jacket.

An instant death for a young pilot, 18 years old, with a freshly-minted pilot’s license that was doubtless somewhere in the mangled mess.

No matter how quickly we would have found him, the end result would have been the same.

And just like that, a life snuffed out like a candle. No more Christmas. No more birthdays. No more dreaming of the love of his life. No more hope for the future.

I was thankful that I didn’t have to see his face.

The next day, I was sitting at the dinner table with my parents, eating and watching the local evening news.

The pilot’s parents were being interviewed. They expressed their disgust at the length of time that it took to find their son’s body. Why wasn’t he found sooner, the mother asked.

I felt both of my parents looking at me, wide-eyed and silent.

I snapped the television knob to off and growled something about them not knowing what the hell they were talking about and how it wouldn’t have made a goddam bit of difference when he was found.

Strong language that I rarely if ever would have used in the presence of my folks.

They said nothing.

I stewed on it for a couple of days and then thankfully, my mind let the anger go.

But the memory remains.

And I am still thankful that I didn’t have to see his face.

A heartfelt apology to you…

When I started this blog last year, I had visions of regaling you with endless tales of whimsy and fascination. I’ve spent the last months trying to wring some worthy fiction from this brain o’ mine. I’ve tried to to force this square peg of a blog into the round hole of my dreams and expectations to no avail.

Apparently my writing roots run deeper in the Charles Bukowski soil than I thought. Somewhere in that ethereal subsurface, the taproot has found tasty vintage in a deep, sometimes melancholic aquifer. Fortunately, the other roots keep feeding me the occasional tale or memory that provides diversion.

It isn’t what I had in mind. I wanted this to be a fun escape, not a baring of souls…

So that seems to be the highway we are hurtling down with occasional trips down the washboard backroads. And now, as Hunter said many years ago, I’ve bought the ticket. I might as well take the ride.

And you’re all coming with me. For that, I apologize. The advantage you have over me is this: you can jump off the train at anytime. I, however, am buckled in tightly with no knowledge of when or where the ride goes but with the belief that I will be gratefully exhilarated when it ends.

A little background to (hopefully) clarify today’s musing:

My own spirituality is a unique hybrid. If your gaze fell upon the shelf that I keep the books that I find the deepest solace and guidance in, you’d see a mix of Buddhist, Christian, Pagan and Native American spirituality.
The man-made elements of religion have done more to drive me away than to draw me closer to God. As a result, I’ve pushed myself further into seeking wisdom down different paths. In my spiritual travels, I’ve learned to note things such as today: the Vernal Equinox, combined with a New Moon and an eclipse.
My Druidic forebears would have seen great significance in this, and would have altered their usual rituals accordingly.

My own ritual? I will light a candle to mark the equinox and put my intention out there to keep writing and belief for it to grow, just as the farmer pushes the pumpkin seed into the cold spring soil in the belief that a strong healthy, fruitful vine will come forth even though he has no idea which direction the plant will go.

So today I will do a little equinox dance for you. I intend that the magnified power of today’s welcoming of the growing season will feed and sustain this virtual, verbal garden that I tend here. I will shed the doldrums and sluggishness of my Winter’s hibernation and keep priming the pump with these posts until it fills up and allows words to start flowing into a longer stream.

And I encourage you to the same in your life. Whatever it is that has been your passion and desire to do, and you have been sitting there waiting for the light to change from red to green, I encourage you to put more pressure on the gas pedal. As I have said before, my line of work reminds me daily of the short and unpredictable nature of this life. The power of today’s equinox also signals a change for your own growth. It is a sign for you to make the first move.

Take action. Till the soil. Turn last year’s regrets and hesitation under the earth to compost and fertilize this year’s adventures. The sun will warm the ground for you and the rains will fall to nourish whatever it is you should choose to plant.

Plant something and take care of it. An untended dream is like an unkept garden. If you just stick something and leave it to its own, it will most likely fall victim to pests and decay. The fruit will be bitter or rotten before you have a chance to enjoy it.

And that, dear reader, is a plain waste of your life and dreams. I will close this with some great motivation from “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield.

“Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.

Do it or don’t do it.

It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself,. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

See you down the trail.