From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Harbinger

It wasn’t noon yet, but the temperature was already approaching ninety-five degrees on the morning I started my flight training at Fort Wolters. It was warm for May, even for Texas, and since the base was intended to be a training ground for Vietnam, the heat just made the experience all the more authentic. We knew that the lucky few who made it through the grueling nine-month warrant officer flight-training course would soon be off to a destination even hotter than Texas.

As nearly two hundred of us stood at attention, we were flushed with excitement. On this day, we would finally begin the “hands on” portion of flight school. We had been through nine tough weeks of basic training in Louisiana and four weeks of continuous harassment from our tactical officers while we began the ground school portion of our classes. The purpose of the harassment, we knew, was to shake out anyone from the program who couldn’t handle the pressure of intimidation and confusion. The ability to remain focused during combat is critical to survival.

That morning, however, no amount of harassment could have taken away from the excitement of climbing into the cockpit of the TH-55 training helicopter to actually begin learning to fly. Although it was common knowledge that only a portion of those who began flight school would actually end up with wings, each of us was convinced that we would soon fly “above the best.” Lunch, and our tactical officers, were all that stood between us and our first flight. We knew from experience that the tac officers could be brutal, so we wondered, uneasily, what they would throw at us during this portion of our training.

As we stood rigidly facing the tac officer, waiting for instructions, a tiny robin hopped out in front of our formation. It seemed confused and a little frightened. Suddenly, its mother flew a low swoop across the lawn, as if encouraging her youngster to take to the air. Despite our efforts to remain focused on the men in command in front of us, everyone’s eyes followed the birds. Even our officers turned to watch, mesmerized by the scene.

Over and over, the tiny bird ran as fast as its little legs could move, taking off after its mom. But despite its best efforts, gravity kept it tethered to the earth. Again and again, the little ball of feathers raced across the grass, flapping its wings, only to hop up on a stone at the end of its long run.

Completely ignoring the crowd of staring bystanders, the mother robin swooped down after her baby’s attempts to fly, cajoling and chiding it. “Like this,” she seemed to be saying. “Try again.” All two hundred of us watched breathlessly, silently praying for the little bird to succeed. Each time it flapped and hopped its way across the lawn in front of us, we’d groan at its failure.

Finally, after we had stood at attention for what seemed like hours just watching, those tiny wings took hold of the air, and the baby bird became airborne for a few feet. You could almost see the little bird swell with pride. Then, on one last run across the front of our formation, the gray piece of fluff rose into the air. Two hundred would-be warrant officers burst into wild cheers. We watched, ecstatic, as the little bird followed its mother to the horizon.

Our tac officers turned back to us, smiling. What could they add? It had been the ultimate flight lesson.

Bill Walker

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