From Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work

The Phantom

What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible.

Theodore Roethke

In the winter of 1963, my 23rd year of life, I found myself in the U.S. Navy as the Combat Information Center officer aboard a destroyer, USS Eaton.

A day out of Cape Hatteras, the outer fringes of a hurricane coming up the coast began to nibble at us. Then it pounced. For three days it mauled us, nearly sweeping me overboard at one point. For three days I vomited. Then on November 29, the hurricane released us. We licked our wounds for a day and made repairs.

The following day, a Phantom jet crashed into the water. I had intended to offer the Navy my services as the pilot of just such an airplane. But when my left eye went 20/40 during my senior year at Roanoke, my dreams of being a naval aviator ended. Someone suggested I could still fly by becoming a radar intercept officer, or RIO, the person who rides behind the pilot and operates the attack radar. It seemed like a great idea until I learned that the RIO also handles all the radio communication.

You see, the big problem—the secret—was that I was a stutterer. The toughest words were those beginning with hard sounds, like t or b, k or g. I lived with a chronic, low-grade fear of stuttering. I decided to avoid the potential ignominy of being required to handle radio communication from a jet and take my chances on a destroyer, where, I hoped, I wouldn’t have to talk so much.

Of course, the Navy, in its infinite wisdom, made me an air controller. That is how, just weeks out of training, green at the gills after a hurricane, I came to be standing watch in the middle of the night when a voice as deep as God’s came over the radio.

“Hermit,” said the voice, “this is Climax Himself. Over.”

“Hermit” was my ship’s call sign. “Climax” was the call sign of the most formidable ship in the fleet, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, flagship of the battle group we were escorting across the Atlantic. “Climax Himself” was the Enterprise’s captain. My heart pounded.

“Hermit, we just lost a Foxtrot Four out your way,” he said. “Both men are down and missing.” Translation: The Phantom jet had crashed, and our ship was being deputized on the spot as search-and-rescue coordinator because we were the ship nearest the plane’s last known position. That meant that it was my sudden duty to be responsible for coordinating the search.

It would have been hard to find a more difficult word for me to pronounce than “Climax.” And, fresh out of Air Control School, I had never been responsible for a real live airplane in my life. Nevertheless, with a determination born of grim images of two souls out there in the frigid water, I took a grease pencil, donned headphones and sat down at my radar console.

When we graduated from Air Control School, they told us we most likely would never have to control more than four or five aircraft at a time. I now had a conversation going with 15 to 20 planes, all streaming toward a potentially disastrous convergence at the center of my scope. Out of the inky night the voices started coming in to me in the laid-back, relaxed, under-pressure argot of Navy pilots: “Ah, Roger, Hermit, this is Climax two-three. I have two-four and two-five in tow. Request vector. Over.” The dialogue went on like that for almost 24 hours.

Three or four hours into the ordeal, it flashed on me that I was not stuttering. Not only was I not stuttering, I hadn’t even thought about it. I’ll never forget the feelings of amazement, exhilaration, grace and gratitude that swept over me at that moment. It occurred to me that in that situation it simply was “not authorized” for me to stutter—not with those two guys down out there and depending on me. I was almost overwhelmed several times with the awareness that this was surely a spiritual experience, a life-changing swerve in the road, a release from captivity, a moment of birth.

As the only controller on our little ship qualified to control jets, I had to stay on the scope as night turned into day and then into the night once more.

At about sunup the following day, one of the search planes got a fix on a rescue beacon . . . but found only fragments of the RIO’s helmet and ejection seat. But then a little later, another plane spotted the pilot bobbing in the swells. We steamed toward the plane, but Climax Himself sent a helicopter from Enterprise to bring his pilot home and called over to me to say, “Bravo Zulu, Hermit.” That’s Navy talk for “well done!”

We arrived at the scene shortly after the helicopter and its rescue crew. As the pilot was being helped into the sling, he somehow got a message to our ship. Our captain’s voice came over the speaker: “Mister Scherer, lay to the bridge! Some guy out there wants to see you.” The sun was just coming up as I ran up the short ladder. The helicopter hovered 20 feet above the water, the pilot just beginning to rise.

We looked at each other over the water. I grinned, waved and gave him a thumbs-up. Dangling from the hoist, just before he disappeared into the helicopter, the water-logged pilot took a last, long hard look—then saluted me. Standing there on Eaton’s rolling deck, I returned his salute. And I wept. I had helped find his Phantom. He had no way of knowing that he had also helped me find mine.

John Scherer

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