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Sometimes the strangers you meet can have great stories

Photo by NASA

During a recent shopping trip, I stood in line behind an older man talking with a clerk about refilling a printer cartridge. She explained that the store didn’t offer the service and made some suggestions as to where he could go to possibly meet his needs.

I half-listened, thinking he might like to do a little research instead of driving all over town and maybe not finding what he needed. As he said “thank you” and turned away, I offered to use my phone to locate where he could find what he needed.

“I don’t know how to use those,” he said as I typed up a search. “My wife is really good with computers and the internet. I let her do it.” He laughed a bit and then his face got sad.

“I learned on the internet that a friend died yesterday. He had dementia.” I could see that his regret for his friend was an ache inside him.

“There are a lot of us dying,” he added. “There is a general here in town that I am watching, waiting to hear about. I want to attend his funeral.”

I asked him how he had served, and he told me he served in Korea and Vietnam. My questions seemed to open-up memories for him.

He had been in the Army, including two tours in Vietnam. He talked about stopping for fuel at Keflavik Airport in Reykjavik, Iceland on his way to England. He was going there to marry his wife and then bring her home to the states.

He talked about taking off three times from an airport in a Boeing 707 that had repeated equipment failures — the first time the pilot lost an engine at 12,000 feet. The second time the cabin lost pressure at 10,000 feet. The third time was the charm, despite the presentiment of disaster expressed by the Lieutenant Colonel sitting next to him.

Then he talked about being called up as a military adviser to be sent to Vietnam on an emergency basis in 1965. He and 1,000 other commissioned and non-commissioned officers stood in a field and were told by a three-star general that they were going to Vietnam by ship. There was an uproar —traveling to Vietnam by ship would take too much valuable time.

The three-star called a two-star in Washington and discussed the absurdity of calling in advisers on an emergency basis and then sending them to Vietnam by ship. Aircraft were found in short order.

The next thing he knew he was on a World Airways L-1011 with over 200 other men and cargo.

They crossed the Pacific, stopping in Hawaii to refuel but somewhere after Hawaii, the pilot lost the electronics in the cockpit and was unable to navigate electronically. He made an announcement to his passengers, reassuring them that he still had visual navigation, and that they were looking for Wake Island where they could get the electronics problem fixed.

Wake Island is an atoll west of Hawaii and north of the Marshall Islands. The largest segment of dry land above sea level was dedicated to runway — effectively a convenient runway in the middle of the ocean.

The question was: Was it long enough?

The amount of runway needed for an L-1011 to take off, depending on the model, was anywhere from 8,000 feet to 11,000 feet. The runway on Wake Island was 9,000 feet long.

And then ocean within feet after that.

On the ground on Wake Island the electronics were quickly repaired, and they made ready to leave. Rolling waves were coming in 10, 15, 20 feet high, he said, surging as they hit the reef around the atoll.

The cabin was dead quiet as the plane increased speed, the passengers looking out the window at the rapidly disappearing tarmac and the rapidly nearing surf.

As the plane finally left the ground at what looked like the very edge of the atoll, a wave appeared to wash into the engine.

“Of course, it didn’t” he said chuckling. “It just looked like it did. It was that close.”

Hours later, they landed in Saigon and began a different adventure.

This is a true story, at least the part about my meeting and listening to this man while shopping. I enjoyed his stories, whether they were true or not, embellished or not, and was grateful that he chose to share them with me.