First Season (It's OK to Laugh)

 

 

By

 

Robert A. McCurdy

 319 Chalet Drive

Grenada,MS 38901

 

As Published in AG PILOT INTERNATIONAL

 

 

God knows I never even considered that I might wind up as a crop duster. It's true, Flying is all I ever wanted to do. It's the only thing that ever mattered in my life, but crop dusting? ----- Naw, I don't think so.

 

I came out of the Navy in January 1970, with around 1400 hours total time, a multi-engine rating and an instrument ticket. Nancy, the kids and I returned to our hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi. I taught school in an all black junior high school for the Spring Semester of 1970, (that's a story in itself), then began managing a fixed-base-operation at the Greenwood Leflore Municipal airport. It was a seven days a week twelve hours a day job, and I was on call the rest of the time. It was the most thankless job I've ever had.  I was just biding my time until I would be picked up by one of the airlines. In the springtime of 1971, I had the opportunity to fly for Mr. R.C, (Bob) Christopher in his aerial application business in neighboring Grenada, and build more time. Besides, it might be fun, and everybody knew that ag-pilots made lots of money. OK, I'll do it for a while. Mr. Bob had a pilot get killed the previous season. He died about ten days after he crashed and burned in his Pawnee, and Mr. Bob needed a pilot. I had a grand total of less than one hour in tail wheel airplanes on the first day I flew one of Mr. Bob's Stearmans. Everyone in the hangar came out to watch me ground loop that Stearman. I saw them all patiently waiting and watching. It took me forever to check the mags and whatever other delaying tactics I could think of. But eventually I had to bite the bullet and fly the Boeing PT-17 Stearman named "Big Mama." She had a Continental W-670, seven cylinder radial engine developing 240 h.p., not the typical Continental 220 h.p. found on most Stearmans. Mr. Bob was one of only two people in the country licensed to convert old WWII tank engines, by modifying the crankshaft to make them compatible for airplanes. I remember reviewing the simple one-step procedure of pushing the stick forward to raise the tail as she accelerated. When the tail came up, I could see ahead, and the airplane would just fly off the ground just like all other airplanes. After all, it's just another airplane: no big deal. "Oh yeah, then why are all those people standing over there watching me?"

 

When I finally taxied onto the center line of runway 31, it took me back to my first carrier landing in a T-28C, but only vaguely, because nothing in life can ever top your first carrier landing which is a solo event, unless maybe it's a launch from Cape Canaveral. When you fly out to the "boat" for the first time in an airplane all by yourself with your squadron mates, all solos also, the adrenaline is pumping so hard you think your heart will explode. I was twenty-five years old, and scared shitless, but I knew I was going through with my attempt to land on that postage stamp. "That's it, there's no backing out now, LeeRoy, church is out!" That spring morning, 1971, the adrenaline was pumping once again, and I was solo again. But now I was in an airplane that was made the same year I was, 1940. 1 eased the throttle forward concentrating 110% on staying on the centerline, and I did. Big Mamma's tail came up just like they said it would before I got he throttle wide open. I knew I was accelerating real fast, and she felt like she was fixing to leave terra firma right now, whether I was ready to or not.       I forced the stick forward holding her down just long enough for me to glance down at the airspeed indicator. I figured I should have at least 70 mph before getting airborne. That's when I almost had heart failure. The airspeed indicator still said "0." The Navy told me airspeed is critical. You simply cannot fly an airplane without and airspeed indicator. It's just not done, you don't do it period! Suicide, plain and simple, I was a dead man. I quickly looked back up to find Big Mamma and I were at about fifty feet, hauling ass, and climbing like a home sick angel.

 

Speaking of angels, I have a guardian angel I named Charles Daniel, Charlie or just C.D. (as in Crop Duster). I think that was probably his first time out with me. In retrospect he was probably in hysterics laughing at me trying to fly that Stearman. He's been flying with me ever since, and sometimes he doesn't laugh. In fact, I'm sure he has even threatened to quit or get reassigned, but his Boss won't let him. Big Mamma, Charlie, and I flew around for a little while, and I truly began to fall in love with her. That was my first experience in an open cockpit. Excuse the cliché, but it was truly "next to sex." The adrenaline continued to pump, and my heart beat fast like it did the "first time." But I had to return from whence I came, because like they say, "take-offs are optional, landings are mandatory." In the exhilaration of flying Big Mamma for the first time, I guess I temporarily forgot about the fact that I had no airspeed indicator, but the realization of my dire circumstances hit me about the time I entered downwind for a few touch-n-goes. The T&G's didn't unnerve me so much as the thought of having to eventually make a full stop landing. The two runways, 4-22 and 13-31, at Grenada at that time were each 5000' long, and I was mighty proud of it. My first touchdown must have occurred at approximately the 4000' point, a wheel landing of course, and moving close to 100 mph. The landings got better as the flight went on, and after a while, I looked over towards the hangar, and there was my cheering section again. "Why in the hell don't they just go inside and leave me alone. If I ground-loop Big Mamma, it will be because they had me upset." I did not ground loop Big Mamma that day, nor have I ever. I might some day, but I haven't yet.

 

I did not complete my first season as a fledgling ag flyer, neither did I fly the Stearman named Big Mamma as my regular working ag plane. Mr. Bob gave me a choice of the Stearman or a 235-Pawnee. I made the wrong choice. On September 13h (it was not a Friday), 1971, around 1:00 PM, I took off from Interstate 55 by the then brand new STUCKEY'S at the Vaiden, MS exit in the South-bound lane. The highway had not been opened to the public at that time, but we had permission to use it for a runway. My Pawnee had close to 140 gallons in the hopper, which was entirely too much to be carrying in that airplane, especially at that hour of the day. But I was unsinkable; indestructible. In our VS-24 squadron readyroom was a poster that simply read, "COMPALCENCY KILLS." I was a Navy carrier pilot, ..............but I was very complacent and I was very vulnerable, and I bought a very expensive lesson that day. I was diving into a small triangular field maybe three acres in size. My load was down somewhat, because I had been flying for several minutes. I don't remember the exact "why" details, but I do clearly remember feeling the airplane violently yaw to the right, and thinking, "What the hell was that?" then looking outside and seeing my entire right wing fold-up and leave the airplane. I never even saw the tree that I hit. Maybe I let down on the tree, and it was in a blind spot; I just don't know. In any case it seems things begin happening in slow motion. The airplane slow-rolled to the right, the nose came down until the propeller blades begin touching the ground and slowly curling backwards. As the nose went down the tail continued to rise, and the airplane began tumbling and disintegrating across that tiny field until it slammed into a tree on the other side, wrapping around it like a horseshoe. I felt like Mohammed Ali had hit me in the stomach. I remember hearing a loud "WHOOOOPHHH," and everything was orange around me. Somehow . I had the presence of mind not to take a breath. By this date I had already cut seven wires, and hit a ditch bank wiping out a landing gear. I suspect Charlie had already gone to his Boss and asked for reassignment, but apparently he was still on duty. I think he must have been the one responsible for keeping my mouth shut until I got out of the fire.

 

What happened from 1:00 PM on September 13"' to December 24th, of that year is a separate story. I honestly don't know if I can express what happened the way I perceived it to happen in print or not, but here goes. I want to preface this little narrative by saying this is not meant to be a humorous story, but there is genuine humor in some of the most tragic situations, and I believe humor can truly be mentally, emotionally, and maybe in an indirect way, physically healing. Jesus had a sense of humor. Why else would he have walked across the water in the middle of the night scaring the living daylights out of Pete and the rest of the boys? I bet they all had a good laugh.

 

I entered that small field in the neighborhood of 110 mph. I felt the sudden, violent yaw to the right, saw the right wing fold up and separate from the airplane. I had no control of the airplane at all, and I knew I was in a world of shit. I managed to say or think a very sincere but hasty prayer. When I hit the second tree on the other side of the field, the fuel tank located directly behind the engine, ruptured and exploded. I was pinned in the plane, it was burning, and I knew I had to get out fast. The quick release seat belt-shoulder harness did not work as advertised, because I was pressed against the instrument panel. My left shoulder was touching the tree around which my airplane was wrapped The airplane that I usually flew was a B Model PA-25-235, Piper Pawnee, but it was in the shop at the time for routine maintenance. It had a steel wire cutter attached vertically to the fuselage in front of the windshield The plane I was in at the time was an older A-Model of the same type airplane. Among other differences, this model did not have the wire cutter. After pulling the seat belt release and not falling free, I had to remove each shoulder harness one at a time, which kept me in the fire a little bit longer. When I finally freed myself, I fell out of the space where the windshield has been, right on top of the gasoline soaked, burning engine which had detached from the plane. Had there been a wire cutter on that airplane, I would not have been able to get out. This was the second of several "coincidences" that could have altered the outcome of my accident. The first I have already mentioned was the fact that I somehow had the presence of mind not to breathe. The fact that I survived the impact of that second tree conscious and without any broken bones or severe lacerations was a minor miracle in itself. This was the third "coincidence." When I finally fell free, I hit the ground running, and I ran maybe 30-40 yards, before stopping to survey the damage. I was wearing my Navy issued flight boots, nomex gloves, and hard hat. These items saved my feet, hands, and head. I was also wearing a synthetic jump suit, which melted completely on me. My cotton underwear saved my "dignity." I guess everyone I know has wondered about that. I actually had one total stranger ask me if I had my "you know what' burned off. My cotton underwear, gloves, and boots were all that was left. My hard hat came off on impact. I was still burning from gasoline be the time I stopped naming, so I rolled in the cotton field, but that did not extinguish the fire. My only recourse was to smother the fire with my hands. It was then that I had the instant realization of and acceptance of the fact that I was burned slap dab up, and had, so I thought only a matter of seconds or minutes to live. Strangely, there was no fear at all. I was very calm and thankful that I had time enough to make peace with my God. So I did. And I did. And I did And I did. And I kept waiting to die, but I didn't.

 

Now it's important to mention something here. My Mom is a very devout Catholic Christian lady, and I wanted the sheriff, doctor, or whoever to tell her, "Mrs. McCurdy, we've got good news and bad news. The bad news is your son crashed and burned to death in his airplane. The good news is we found him still on his knees with his hands folded." After a while, I said to myself, "Well, I may as well get up and see if I can find the road." I was totally disoriented when I got on my feet, and I just began running down one of the cotton rows. It just so happened that back down the road a mile or so was a general store where some old men were sitting on a wooden bench, probably whittling on a cedar block, spitting tobacco juice, and watching that little white airplane dart in and out of those tiny cotton fields so typical of the Mississippi hill farms. Then they heard a loud noise, and saw black smoke curling up from behind the trees, and they knew what had happened. A very nice retired gentleman named Mr. Wilson Cadiss was one of those men watching. He jumped in his '57, ½ ton Chevrolet and headed in my direction. He was parking his truck as I was climbing up the ditch bank next to his truck on the passenger side. Though completely disoriented, I ran straight to his truck. This was the fourth "coincidence." I so clearly remember the look on that poor old man's face when he rounded the tailgate of his truck. I know I must have looked like something out a Hollywood horror movie, and I almost scared him to death. I climbed in his truck and we headed to the Winona, MS hospital. By this time blood was coming to the surface all over me, and I apologized for making a mess on the seat of his truck. It was at this time that I first began to feel pain; not from the deep second and third degree burns, but from the first and shallow second degree burns where the nerves were still intact. Mr. Cadiss belonged to the Vaiden, MS, volunteer fire department, and had a police radio in his truck. He tried to call the highway patrol, but became so flustered that I took the microphone, explained what had happened, and that we were headed to the Winona Hospital. I also asked for a Catholic priest to be there. I wanted to receive the Last Rites of the church known as the sacrament of Etreme Unction, which is the church's closest thing to a guarantee of your final reward. When we got to the hospital, a crew was waiting. They wanted me to get on the stretcher, but I just walked in, and jumped up on the ER table. I didn't get the priest I asked for, but they did provide me with the nicest Baptist minister. All the medical team in Winona wanted to do was prepare me for the trip 80 miles south to University Hospital in Jackson, which included starting me on an IV. The problem was that the doctor couldn't find a place to stick me. He finally found a place to put the needle on top of my foot, thanks to my flight boots. I asked the doctor if I was in shock, and he told me if I was asking the question, then I was not in shock. I also asked him what my chances of survival were, and he only evaded my question. I then asked him what percent burns did I have, and he said he would estimate 90%. So then I asked him if he knew of any survivors of 90% burns, and he said no. That only confirmed what I had already accepted. Shortly thereafter, they loaded me in an ambulance, and we headed south down I-55 back to Vaiden, then down Hwy. 51, since as previously mentioned, 1-55 had not been opened all the way to Jackson.

 

On the way down I experienced thirst to the point that I would have drank ditch water, and I begged the nurse to give me the spare bottle of glucose to drink, which she eventually did. I chug-a-lugged that liter, then begged them to stop and get me another drink Months later I found out she gave me the glucose and stopped for me because they didn't think I would live long enough to make it to Jackson anyway. The ambulance driver stopped at a small town en route to fill my glucose bottle. While he was inside, some of the local yocals gathered around the ambulance to gawk at the blackened piece of meat in the back. That really pissed me right off. We left those red necks, I drank the water, and we headed south again. It wasn't long, however, before I was begging them to stop one more time. The driver stopped, but this time I was ready for those gore-addicted sadistic bastards who love to chase ambulances. I waited until they had all gathered around me, then I suddenly lunged towards the windows, and roared like the Hollywood monster I appeared to be. Those sons of bitches left me alone forthwith!!

 

Next stop, University Hospital Jackson Mississippi. Once again a team was waiting for me at the emergency room, and they knew what to do. The doctor was asking me various questions, including my name, and then he said, "Are you from Greenwood." To which I said, "yes sir." And he said, "Robert, I'm Bobby Bobo." We were in the Cub Scouts together years earlier, and we reminisced right there in the emergency room as he worked on me. I told Bobby that I wanted to see a Catholic priest, and he sent for one. Bobby told me if I were to have a chance of surviving, I had to get to a burn hospital. Since I was a veteran, and currently in the Navy reserve, maybe I could be accepted at the renowned Ft. Sam Houston Army Hospital in San Antonio, where they have the Institute of Surgical Research. In the mean time, my wife Nancy and my Mom arrived in Jackson, but I had not seen them. Shortly after their arrival, a young priest, two weeks out of seminary and straight from Ireland, walked in to provide his first ever, Last Rites of the Church, reserved only for those about to "buy the farm." Nancy nailed him before he could come through the ER door. "Don't you dare go in there and scare my husband, he's been badly burned, and he doesn't need to think he is about to die." Nancy told him something along this order plus a few other choice words, enough to put the fear of God in this man of God. In any case, when he came in, Bobby and the nurses left us alone, and I said, "I sure am glad to see you Father. I'm just fo fixin' to check out, and I need the Last Rites." His name was Tom McGing, and he said to me in his stout Irish brogue, "Rnrobert, I have some prayers of the sick for you." To which I said, "Thanks, but no thanks.  I want the Last Rites of the Church," (the sacrament of Extreme Unction, you know, the REAL THING! Don't you understand, you ding bat, I'm fixing to "cross the bridge," "kick the bucket," "pass through the tunnel." "I'm heading west," now please do your thing.) I don't know if he was just that obstinate, or if he was thinking he'd have to face Nancy when he went back out, but he argued with me that he had some "prayers for the sick."  By this time I was sitting up, tubes and all, and I lay back down on the table, and disgustedly said, "Then give me your prayers for the sick."

 

Now I need to preface this next part with some background information so you will understand what happened as I experienced because this is important. I don't know that God has two arms, legs, toes, fingers, etc. The Biblical phrase, "Made in his image and likeness," does not refer to a physical description. I don't know who or what "God" is. I do believe in a supreme divine something that is best described in 13` John, Chap. 2, vs. 27, and Chap. 4, vs. 7&16 of the New Testament that simply says, "God is Love," and "God is Truth." That's enough for me. Star Wars came as close as any other description of God when Luke Skywalker said, "May the Force be with you." I do believe under some circumstances, which we do not fully understand, sometimes there can be a genuine supernatural healing. I am honest enough to admit that I am a "Doubting Thomas." I am very skeptical about "healings," especially those we see on TV. Faith has a lot to do with a possible, genuine, supernatural healing. I've heard it said that faith healing is nothing more than a person's own mine willing a tumor away. I'm sure that is the case often times, even with a "non believer." However, I do believe that a supernatural healing can take place, but observing Benny Hinn or Oral Roberts "heal" someone on TV; I just don't know. Maybe so, maybe not. I only know what happened to me.

 

When I lay back down on the table in the University Hospital ER, Tom McGing put his hand on my forehead and began his "prayers for the sick." I closed my eyes, and then I felt something as physical as typing these words, as physical as driving your car. My mind was not playing tricks on me; I was fully awake and alert as to what was happening to me. I did go into "left field," but that was a few days later. However, I was not aware that I was actually receiving the Last Rites of the Church, the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, the "Laying on of Hands." Please keep in mind, I did believe divine healing can occur, but I was not aware that I was the recipient of a divine intervention into my circumstances. What I felt was something warm, as tiny as a pea in the very center of my stomach, physical. Then this "pea," this warm feeling began to grow or spread throughout my body. I felt it move down my arms and legs so that when Father Tom finished his prayers for the sick, I felt "0" pain. In fact, I never felt better in my life. When Fr. Tom completed the service, I told him if he would just please tell Nancy to get me a pair of blue jeans and some tennis shoes, I'll just go home `cause I was going to be all right. Of course, I didn't go home right then. I went from there to Veterans Hospital, where I stayed until they got me stabilized about seven days later.

 

A Red Cross DC-9 flew into Allen C. Thompson Field in Jackson to pick me up, thence flew me to San Antonio. En route, I thought I was dying, and I called Nancy to me and told her through sign language, (I had tubes in my throat, in my neck, and in my "dignity") that I was "leaving" by first pointing to myself then straight up. She jumped my case just about as severely as she nailed the priest in the hospital. She told me in no uncertain terms, that I had better not leave her to raise our three kids by herself. I was involved in their being here, and there would be no skating out on the responsibility. And she wasn't very nice about it at all, I remember it very clearly. I mean what else could I say? You don't know Nancy! I don't remember very much about the arrival in San Antonio; I was drifting in and out of left field, but I do remember that first debriding. The fire doesn't hurt compared to the scraping off of burned skin with coarse mesh gauze. "Yes Virginia, there is a Purgatory, it's in San Antonio, Texas." At Ft. Sam they do not give burn patients morphine or other pain killing drugs. The reason: they want your respiratory, your circulatory and your excretory systems working as best they can, and not slowed down by drugs. "If you want to cry and scream, be our guest. We're used to it knock yourself out." Enough said.

 

Ft. Sam had a stainless steel tank called the Hubbard Tank and shaped somewhat (ironically) like a cross. I made approximately 30 trips to the Hubbard tank for debriding. Sometimes they would give me a little "boom-boom" (Demerol). I guess it helped. It was in the Hubbard tank where they cut my ears off.  The skin was dead, they had to go. One of the debriding medics was named Lovelace. I asked him if he was kin to Linda, but he said no. Back then in my younger days, I was in pretty good physical shape. I could tighten my stomach muscles so that the medics could lift me in and out of the tank with one lifting my head and the other lifting me by my heels. I hardly weighed 120 lbs. a few weeks after my accident, and it was a very convenient way to get me in and out of the tank. One day as they were lifting me out of the tank, I had tightened my stomach muscles as best I could, and as they lifted me about two feet out of the water, I inadvertently expelled a waft of methane. The two medics began laughing, which started me laughing, and of course, I could not maintain the rigidity of my stomach, and they dropped me with a loud splash back into the tank. Other medics, nurses and doctors came running. We were all in hysterics laughing, and I was buck naked, but it didn't matter.

 

Each day after coming out of the Hubbard Tank, medics would rub me down with a coat of sulfur mylon, an experimental antibacterial cream all over my burns. (The vast majority of burn victims die from infection.) Sulfur mylon was a white cream that looked just like cold cream, but that stuff made me think I was back in the fire. I had a reaction to it one day and stopped breathing. I had to be resuscitated, and they stopped using that hot shit on me. I was proud of that! That may have been the time they gave me the Last Rites of the Church again, but I don't remember it. I know that I was in and out of "left field" for about six weeks, during which time Nancy and my Mom were told that I had less than a one-percent chance of living. I don't remember too much about that period, but I do vividly remember several on-going hallucinations. I designed a houseboat, drew the plans, and then built it board by board in my mind. Months later while I was recovering at home, I actually built a scale model of that boat. My main on-going hallucination was that I was not in a hospital at all, but was being held captive by a Mexican Mafia, and if I survived, I would be sent deep into Mexico to work as slave labor in salt mines. I tried to convince the Catholic chaplain of this diabolical scheme, but he wouldn't buy it. I actually tried to escape a couple of times, rolling out of the bed, and jerking loose all my tubes and wires. That's when they tied me to the bed. The next time my Mom and Nancy came to see me, I told them we had to get out of there; the priest was in on the plot. I also had two imaginary little orphan girls who lived behind my wheel chair, and I used to drop food to them.

 

One day a nice man stopped by my wheel chair to talk I asked him if he knew how to call a deaf rabbit. When he said no, I yelled at the top of my lungs, "RABBIIIIIIITTTTTT!" The hospital staff thought someone was yelling ,"medic," which brought the entire staff running. They failed to see the humor in my little joke.

 

The doctor assigned to me, Dr. Gary Welch, told me later he was real proud of me because I was his first patient to leave the hospital alive. I was damn sure glad he didn't tell me about his record when I first got there.

 

From time to time, doctors from around the world would visit the hospital to study the latest techniques and treatment the Institute of Surgical Research was doing with its burn patients. It made me feel like a guinea pig, which we were. I was a little bit uncomfortable when doctors would all stand around staring at me while Dr. Welch would read my case history to them, describing my accident, extent of burns, treatment, etc. Sometimes they would ask me a few superficial questions. One day a foreign doctor asked me where I went to college. I told him I went to Farmers University of Central Kansas, and did graduate work a Sam Houston Institute of Technology. Dr. Welch just turned around and walked away. He pulled my chain as much as I pulled his. One day he came by to tell me that he was scheduling me for another skin grafting surgery. I asked him what part of me he would be using for donor sites, since I didn't have much unburned or unstripped skin left. He told me he would be using my tongue or my penis. I was a complete wreck until one of the medics told me he was just giving me a little payback chain jerking. Sometimes I wonder what ever happened to him. I heard that when he left Ft. Sam, he said he never wanted to be a burn doctor again. I fully empathize with him, he paid his dues. In fact, none of the burn staff stayed there very long before being rotated to another area of the hospital. It can be very demoralizing for dedicated nurses, medics, and doctors. It takes a very special person to work on a burn ward.

 

I remember when I was told, "From now on you will have to shave yourself each morning." What they in essence were telling me was it's time for you to see what you look like. It did bother me at first, but all I had to do was look around me, and I felt very fortunate and had nothing to feel sorry about.

 

Around Thanksgiving, Nancy's Mom and Dad brought our three kids to San Antonio to see me. They were seven, five, and three years old. Nancy had prepared them as best she could about my appearance, and they sat perfectly still, hardly daring to look at me. I could feel the fear and apprehension those little ones must be experiencing, but after I began talking to them, and asking them questions about the dog, etc., they knew I was their dad, and two months of pent-up conversation erupted from all three. For the first time since arriving at Ft. Sam, I cried like a baby when they had to leave. There were many other daily events that I remember too numerous to mention here, as well as certain staff and other patients who became our friends. But there is one other incident I would like to relate.

 

There were two floors that were used for burn patients. I think they were the thirteenth and fourteenth floors. I referred to them as the "Good Floor" and the "Bad Floor." The Bad Floor was where badly burned patients were initially placed, and if it appeared that they may survive and were ambulatory, then they were sent to the Good Floor. When I found out about the Good Floor, I started bugging the hell out of the staff to move me there. Dying and crying patients were about to get to me, especially children. So they did move me. My bed was a circle bed, invented, strangely enough, by an ag-pilot/tinkerer named Laurel Koll, from Ruleville, Mississippi. It may be a wonderful thing for burn victims, but I hated it. It allows the patient to be rotated from his/her back to stomach without moving in the bed. When they would rotate me it felt like all of my skin was being pulled off the bones. When I was moved to the Good Floor, I was in hopes of leaving that damn circle bed on the Bad Floor, but it came with me. Every four hours around the clock I would be changed from my back to my stomach to sitting in my wheel chair then back to my back, etc.. Keep in mind the Viet Nam War was still raging, and the vast majority of burn victims were Viet Nam Vets. As it was, there happened to be a black patient on the Good Floor who had arrived a few weeks earlier from Viet Nam. It seems he was asleep in his tent when two soldiers dowsed his face with gasoline and set him on fire, which was why only his face and hands were burned. But they were badly burned, and he was horribly scarred. During my first night on the Good Floor, I had just been transferred from the circle bed to the wheelchair beside my bed at maybe 2:00 AM. Most everyone was asleep, but down the hall was another burn ward, where this poor black soldier had just been treated with sulfur mylon on his face and hands. He was ambulatory, so after they creamed him, they put a bed sheet diaper on him and let him go walking. Like I mentioned, the sulfur mylon made you think you were back in the fire. And there I was sitting in my wheel chair, totally alone, in very dim lighting, and down the hall I heard this moaning sound At first I couldn't see anything, but the moaning grew louder, and eventually I could see a huge shape slowly coming towards me. Then I could see this huge black man with a white face, eyes and mouth wide open and white hands held up high out in front of him. He was wearing nothing but a diaper, moaning and groaning and coming straight towards me. I couldn't get the brakes released on my wheel chair, and then I began frantically trying to get out of wheel chair. I think I almost had a heart attack. A night nurse heard me raising hell in my wheel chair and came to my rescue. I wonder what ever became of that poor soul? I wonder why someone would do such a thing to another person in the first place. Viet Nam reduced a lot of good people to the same level as those we called our enemy. No, I did not go to Viet Nam. I was in Europe. Someone had to protect us from the Italians, French and Danes, especially the Danes.

 

Nancy stayed with me the entire time I was in the hospital, except for the last few days. My extent of burns was a total 84% and 35% third degree. All toll I had fifteen skin grafting and Z-plasty surgeries. The following Spring, my ears were made off my neck at Veterans Hospital in Jackson, MS. Someone at Ft. Sam Hospital told Nancy that at the time, I was one of three to survive with my extent of burns and the only one with all my fingers and toes intact. To this day I never fly without my Nomex gloves, and yes I am still crop dusting, with something in the neighborhood of 16,000 hours. And yes, I have torn up another airplane, but only my feelings were hurt. No, I do not wear a Nomex flight suit, but I do wear cotton underwear.

 

On December 24, 1971, Christmas Eve, I was taken to the San Antonio International Airport and helped aboard a Boeing 727 for Memphis. We had one en route stop in Houston. I guess I was too proud to ask for help, which was the same as being too stupid, because I was very weak, and exhausted nearly to the point of collapse. Somehow I managed to lug my carry-on bags from one terminal to another. When I finally got to Memphis, my Dad was there waiting for me with a wheelchair. His meeting me was especially significant because we had never gotten along very well, and it gave both of us time together without turmoil. It was a very happy Christmas.

 

6404  August 13, 1997.