“The Journey”

(This is the introductory chapter to my manuscript for outdoorsmen, Real Men Don’t Get Lost.)

My earliest memories of the outdoors occurred at my Grandmom Brown’s in Chesterfield, South Carolina. Grandmom scratched a living out of the ground. She used mules instead of a tractor. Grandmom and Dad had hand sawed all the planks for the barn from lumber Dad had dragged out of the swamp by oxen. Dad had grown up dirt poor with a breakdown single shot shotgun. He believed that if you shot more than once you were wasting money. One day Dad decided to take us, my three brothers and me, rabbit hunting. As we walked through the woods Dad would occasionally tell us to stop. He would then point out the cottontail before it would flush. I must admit we had trouble seeing the rabbit even with Dad’s directions. Another time we were in the woods when Dad told us all to freeze because of a large rattler. He eased off a few yards and cut a stick and killed the snake. We asked Dad how he could have seen the snake in the thick brush. He said he did not see it, he had smelled it. We were skeptical but he explained the odor rattlers had on the farm. I did not smell a thing.

A career army officer Dad, and Mom, moved every couple of years. He had a trophy red stag he had shot in Germany while serving in Criminal Investigation during the occupation following WWII. His unit investigated the black market and was assigned the task of searching for Hitler’s gold. Hunting and fishing was their recreation in Europe. I was born while he was the post game warden for Ft. Stewart, Georgia. I remember him coming home from his last turkey hunt in Maryland. Dad could not stand careless hunters with poor etiquette and refused to share the woods with them.

Raised by Christian parents I came to realize that I had a sin problem. Obviously, as a nine year old I didn’t have a life of crime and debauchery behind me, but I knew I did not measure up to a holy God. I trusted that Christ had done everything for my salvation in a church start outside Ft. Meade, Maryland. When my dad retired all us boys voted to move to Alaska. We ended up in South Carolina, where I spent my time squirrel and rabbit hunting, fishing, reading Field & Stream, and day dreaming of Labrador retrievers and the West. As an army family we watched the evening news and kept an eye on Viet Nam. I had no interest in going straight to college after high school and my brother, Mike, had already dropped out of college to fly in the army. Flying sounded more exciting than attending college, so I celebrated my eighteenth birthday by entering the Army’s Warrant Officer Rotary Wing Aviation Course.

At eighteen I knew more about being a “real helicopter pilot” than I did being a growing Christian. I did not know the importance of daily Bible study and prayer. Mike had extended his tour in Viet Nam and was in-country when I arrived. Don, a signal officer, arrived the following month.

Early in 1971 the Pentagon determined the ARVNs (South Vietnamese Army) capable of severing the Ho Chi Minh trail which supplied the communists in the south. Air assault companies were sent to I Corps in support of LAM SON 719, the ARVN invasion of Laos. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) allowed the ARVNs to become extended over a number of landing zones (LZ) before they counter attacked with tanks, heavy artillery, and 25,000 troops. LAM SON 719 quickly became a shooting gallery with the ARVN troops serving as the bait and army helicopters becoming the sitting ducks. The NVA shot down or grounded from battle damage 444 of the 600 helicopters involved in the operation and 10,000 ARVN soldiers were wounded, killed, or missing. One of the aviation companies from III Corps lost their complete gun platoon on one LZ. The Charlie model gunships could not handle the mountainous terrain and the heavy machine gun and light antiaircraft weapon fire.

Photo of my helicopter in the newspaper for the U.S. troops in Viet Nam.

Photo of my helicopter in the newspaper for the U.S. troops in Viet Nam.

The units flying LAM SON 719 needed replacement aircraft and pilots. I volunteered and arrived at A Company, 158th Aviation Battalion, the “Ghost Riders,” in early March. On March 19th we were assigned to the extraction of ARVN troops from several of the LZs along Highway 9 toward Tchepone. It was a typical day for the operation. We started with eleven aircraft and by afternoon had two or three still flyable. On the first mission of the morning point blank fire riddled six of the aircraft. A .51 caliber round hit “Itty Bitty” while in the LZ. Blowing through the armor seat the round paralyzed him. The next attempt resulted in “Wop” taking an antiaircraft round through the bottom of his seat. By late afternoon I was in one of three flyable aircraft. The ARVN unit needed ammo and water so headquarters decided that one aircraft would resupply them. We were selected to fly over at 6,000 feet and throw out the supplies. (I always wondered how it would feel to have an ammo crate land on your head from 6,000 feet.) Headquarters hoped the altitude would minimize our risk. We would also be escorted by several Cobra gun teams.

Over the LZ at 6,000 feet it looked like the Fourth of July as tracer rounds the size of basketballs flashed through our blades. For every tracer round there were three or four regular rounds. Though out of small arms range, the .51 calibers and antiaircraft weapons had no trouble reaching us. A classmate had recently been vaporized at 6,000 feet with a first round hit by a radar controlled antiaircraft gun. With absolute certainty I knew I was going to die. You can not bargain with God, but I believe He puts you in situations to bring you around to His viewpoint. I remember praying, “God, I know I am yours, that I am going to heaven, but if you choose to let me live I  will do whatever you want.” His answer wasn’t audible but I had such a sense of His presence it was if I had heard Him say, “Nothing is going to happen to you.” I finished the rest of my tour as the only Ghost Rider aircraft commander (that I know of) that never took at hit to his aircraft. I had men killed immediately after getting off the aircraft, but I never took a hit. Almost one third of my flight school class died in Viet Nam. I should be among them, but God had other plans. I came home before my twentieth birthday and met a friend from high school who had been the class drunk. His life was radically changed. Through him I discovered you get out of Christianity in geometric proportions to what you put into the relationship.

I wish I could say that I consistently lived for Christ from March 1971, on, but I can’t. I can say that God has always been faithful. He has given me a wonderful family. Kathy and I moved to Alaska in 1974 where our boys were born and reared. Everyday in Alaska God’s creation declares His reality. Its spectacular mountains and endless vistas remind me how great He is and insignificant I am. As a public school teacher, minister, bush pilot, National Guard pilot, commercial fisherman, fishing guide, outfitter, charter operator, ski patrolman, and tourism business owner I was blessed by years of outdoor experiences. Many times God used an experience to teach me a spiritual truth. When I read of the disciples in the storm I visualize Clarence Strait with whitecapping seas higher than the boat’s cabin breaking on the bow and know the peace of being in the Creator’s care. After seminary we returned to Alaska and had the joy of spending two years hunting, fishing, shrimping, and woodworking with my dad in Ketchikan. Six months after our moving to Soldotna he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My mother lived her faith. Rearing four boys, having three of them serve in combat for over two years straight, and losing her partner of fifty years my mom always had had a quiet peace about her. She loved fishing with Dad and would often laugh about their hunting adventures in Europe.

Most of the names in these stories have been changed to protect my friends from further embarrassment. I wrote with the standard that I changed the name if you laugh at anyone other than me. I especially want to acknowledge my friend Howard White. He lived and died for Christ and he is worthy of honor. I do want to thank my hunting partners, Dave Sterley, Dean Nichols, and my three sons, Ashley, Adam, and Andrew. Others have seen first hand my amazing woodsmanship, but these did not give up on me, which I deeply appreciate. I have tried to be as accurate as possible, but the exact locations and details might be wrong. Of course, that’s what make these hunting stories.

Several of the chapters involve, or are written by my oldest son, Ashley. Serving in a parachute infantry regiment on 9-11 he represents many young men and women who are seeing the power of God in a different outdoor setting. It is our desire that God will use this book to help men come to know Him and decide to begin the greatest adventure of their lives, being a follower of Christ. I can promise it will never be boring.

“Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, ‘Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ But Simon answered and said to Him, ‘Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.’ And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!’ For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.’ So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.” Luke 5:3-11 (NKJV)

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