Where do you start to choose stories that span 44 years ~ 1970 to 2014 ~ where does the time go? God’s been good to us and has blessed our lives with two wonderful children – one is with Him in heaven and the other is happily married and lives in Danville, Illinois with her husband and our three wonderful grandkids.
3….2….1….Back to Bed
I remember nervously sitting in the Los Angeles airport awaiting the departure of my flight for the Springs. It was my first flight; I had been on airplanes before but had never left terra firma. As I nervously glanced around, I noticed a couple other young guys who seemed to be in the same boat…Tracy Cheatham, Mark Smith and I became acquainted for the first time. It turned out that I was the only one who had made motel reservations in the Springs so they decided to join me at the Best Western Imperial Motel for the night. We arrived early Sunday afternoon with nothing to do. So what are three future cadets to do? Well, take a walk around to check out the new digs. Our eyes lit up as we saw the sign…BOTTLE ROCKETS…cool! Hey, if they sell them, they must be legal to blast off. If any of you have experimented with bottle rockets, you know they don’t necessarily fly where you aim them. After several uneventful launches, to our great chagrin, one lifted off, rotated ninety degrees, skipped off the roof of a mobile home and…BOOM!…right in the middle of a cluster of trailers – quite a show! We decided to walk on…quickly. Shortly thereafter, one of Colorado Springs’ finest pulled up alongside us and – I don’t remember his exact words – asked if we had been lighting up the evening sky with bottle rockets. We confessed that we had – didn’t want to start off our Academy days with an honor violation. He then asked if we were going to be reporting to the Academy the next day; again we answered in the affirmative, thinking that our days at the Academy might be over before they started. He recommended that we would probably need a good night’s rest and should get on back to our motel room. We once again readily agreed, quite thankful that we would be sleeping in a bed instead of the pokey. Try explaining that to your summer commander and AOC!
Authorized/Unauthorized – We hated ratting ourselves out but had to do it when exploring those “OFF LIMITS” locales like the tunnels. There was just something so tantalizing and just too tempting about the forbidden fruit. And who could resist popping out a ventilator shaft and ambushing an unsuspecting car or two and then vanishing into the night? We never did that though, did we????
Roomo Scott Huddleson was hosting the Navigators Bible Study in our room and had several cadets involved. I still had a pretty flashpoint temper but Scott was working with me through it. We were also teammates on our squadron flickerball team – wing champs that year. During one game, the ref made one of the inevitable bad calls that usually come during the course of a game and I saw red and I let him know all about it in no uncertain terms. Turning around and feeling very self-justified, I met the open mouth and wide-eyed stare of one of the doolies who had just joined the Bible study, and my self-justified and self-satisfied anger turned to instant remorse as God immediately dealt with a problem that I had refused to deal with for many years. God has a way of doing that – He brings us face-to-face with things that need to change that we don’t necessarily want to deal with. Proverbs 15:1 tells us, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Wish I could say I was perfect from that moment on, but it was certainly a turning point for me, and God taught me an important lesson on how to better deal with people in the future.
Returning to the Zoo one wintry evening with Rich Fickes, ’73, in his Dodge Charger, we were flying NW on Academy Blvd when Rich spied a figure lying in the middle of the road. He immediately hit the brakes and…nothing. The wheels stopped but the car just glided over the unseen black ice toward the motionless prone figure and something else lying next to him. We both whispered a hasty prayer and braced ourselves. The car gradually rotated clockwise ninety degrees and stopped with the petrified man’s legs resting underneath the Charger between the front and rear wheels, and what turned out to be his motorcycle up against the front wheels. Our hearts were pounding as we leapt from the car and played slip ‘n slide over to the motorcyclist to, thankfully, find him uninjured although extremely shaken. After thanking God for stopping the car and sparing the cyclist, we were able to move his inoperable bike over to the side of the road and drive him home – waaay out in the country. Rather shaken, we made a much slower and uneventful return to the dorm.
In Echelon, We Carry On…
And carry on we did. Shortly after receiving our new wheels as juniors, a couple of us were returning to the hallowed halls of the Blue Zoo one evening. As we drove up South Gate Blvd and transitioned onto Stadium Blvd, we decided to try our hand at formation flying. We changed lead several times flying echelon right, then echelon left and then transitioned to a flying vee. Three cars, two lanes, probably not the best idea, but it looked great – at least to us. Fortunately we didn’t attract the attention of the security folks.
Grand Canyon Not So Sweet
Jim Hazen and I, along with his fiancée, headed southwest and met up with my fiancée, her brother and his friend (who headed east from California) at the Grand Canyon for a quick rendezvous. Why do cadets do crazy things like that? Hey, it was only 800 miles and that equates to less than 10 hours of driving at cadet speeds – closer to 9 hours if conditions are right.
As usual, we left for the return trip at the last possible minute assuming that nothing could possibly go wrong. We were streaking through the Arizona desert down I-40 at approximately 90 mph when…POW…Murphy stepped in and a sizable chunk of the right rear tire took flight. I can only thank God that he allowed me to maintain control of my more than slightly unstable vehicle as we slowed to a stop in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, those were the days of full-size spares, so after dragging all the gear out of the back of the Great Pumpkin (my wonderful Impala station wagon), we were back on the road again but pushing our timeline – considerably. Uh-oh, one problem…did we reload everything? Did you know you can make U-ees on the interstate? You can if there are no troopers within 200 miles and you have one of those cut-throughs – in fact, can do it twice. Well, we found everything except Eric Holck’s sleeping bag which is still hidden somewhere in the Arizona desert.
Now we really had to fly low, but flying low also plays havoc with your mpg and there aren’t any open gas stations in the middle of nowhere in the wee hours of the morning. With the gauge indicating CDB for being a day late and a dollar short, we pulled into our last chance for gas – Las Vegas, New Mexico; it was either gas or overnight lodging (well, more like a couple hours sleep until the roosters woke everybody up). We held our breath as we noticed a flicker of light and…YES!...the only open gas station we had seen in forever. We were full again and ready to fly – only 270 miles to go. We checked our watches and figured we just might make it on time IF there weren’t any state troopers between us and the Academy. There weren’t and I won’t tell you what the top speed of a Chevy Impala station wagon with a 400cc engine is. J
Cheyenne Canyon has some great old mountain roads that wind up into the hills and duck into the old train tunnels. The steep slopes off those roads are also covered with tons of crushed rock that make for great screeing. Never did it? Well, just lace up your combat boots, leap into the scree and it’s just like downhill skiing. Just don’t get your weight forward and fall flat on your face…then you become a human sled with no brakes! Pushing your hands into the scree doesn’t work; I tried. As I screeeeee…ched in my loudest little girl voice possible, I notice a rather large boulder in my path about a hundred feet downhill. At my speed, I concluded that, at best, it would take a couple hundred stitches to put my head back together if I didn’t come up with a brilliant evasion plan; neither of my buddies were going to be able to bail me out. Remembering my street-fighting one-oh-one training from PE (duck and roll), I tucked my head into the scree which flipped my feet over my body in a somersault. I landed on my back with my feet in the scree downhill from my head. The momentum from the roll continued to carry me into an erect position and I was able to scree left past the looming boulder. Screeing to a stop, I looked at a wide-eyed Jim Hazen and Scott Huddleson and said, “That was cool! Let’s do it again!” We did.
The four of us were gathered around the card table peering intently at our Pinochle hands. Bidding had gone fairly quickly and we were now concentrating on taking as many tricks as possible. Don’t think I have ever seen four cadets move so quickly! There…right in the middle of our Pinochle game was a 50, no, 60 foot rattlesnake! Hearts racing, short breath, but wait...what was that laughter? There was Phil Spry and Eric Holck with smirks on their faces and they were laughing at us and pointing at a dead, headless, 3 foot rattlesnake on our table. After we caught our breath and could join in the merriment (and avoid the urge to kill) we got the full story of their adventure up in the hills to capture their trophy. I can’t remember who I was playing cards with that day but it wouldn’t surprise me if it included Bill Van Horn, Jerry Flynn and a 2-degree.
The Weather Outside is…..Crazy…..As Usual
If you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes and it will change – typical of our days at the Blue Zoo. My wonderful fiancée from Southern California was excited to see and experience some snow as she boarded the flight to the Springs in February 1974 to attend our Valentine’s Day Ball. She could have left the parka at home though, because we were having a heat wave when she stepped off the plane…and it stayed that way all weekend – not a snowflake in sight. So that she could enjoy the snow, we did take a drive up into the mountains carting two huge truck inner-tubes to do some tubing, but guess what doesn’t work too well in loose powder? Well, we had a good laugh after our long trek up the hillside! As I waved goodbye at the airport and turned to drive to Harmon Hall for the Beach Boys concert, little snowflakes began to fall on my head…I just shook my head and chuckled at our wonderfully unpredictable weather. When Joanie returned in June for our June Week activities in preparation for graduation, do any of you remember what started the week? Yep – SNOW! This time she had all summer clothes. Gotta love Colorado weather.
Skiing on the cheap
“Hey Jack, what’s for breakfast?” “Beans and weinies.”
“Hey Jack, what’s for lunch?” “Beans and weinies.”
“Hey Jack, what’s for dinner?” “Beans and weinies.”
Parking next to the ski lifts, camping out in the back of the Great Pumpkin (my infamous Impala station wagon) and gourmet dining were the norm for hitting the slopes on the weekend with our whopping hundred buck a month cadet paycheck. We didn’t own skis because for $5, we could rent skis, boots and poles from the Cadet Ski Club and not have to worry about maintaining them. Lift tickets were reasonable in those days as well, so, by incorporating the above strategy, roomo Jack Smith and I could hit a couple ski resorts on any given weekend. We’d drive up to one parking lot after class on Friday, ski Saturday, find another parking lot Saturday night, ski Sunday and be back to the Vandenberg Fun One Penthouse in time for Call-to-Quarters. Study? That’s what all-nighters are for.
Go to a Land I Will Show You
“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2). Three times in a week – God, are you trying to tell us something?
In July 1979, we made the decision to separate from active duty and pursue a career as a civilian air traffic controller to be closer to home. We were at McGuire AFB, NJ at the time and Timmy was just over three months old when we packed him and his 2½ year-old sister, Jenny, into the car and headed back to California from whence we started. It wasn’t long before I was hired to control airplanes at Point Mugu Naval Air Station and we were settled into civilian life in Camarillo, California. While there, I also served with the AF Reserves as an air traffic control Mobilization Augmentee with the 392nd Communications Group at Vandenberg AFB. We also became active in the life of Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, a wonderful group of believers who served God faithfully in the city. The only problem was we really hadn’t talked to God about our decision to get out of the Air Force.
About a year after getting out of the Force, I received a letter from HQ Air Force asking if I would consider returning to active duty. To be quite honest, I just chuckled at the thought and discarded the letter – “Not interested,” I thought. God had other ideas though and started to make His plan known a few months later. Both my wife and I had this nagging feeling that we weren’t where we were supposed to be; we couldn’t put a finger on it but something just wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was the job location. I put out some feelers to other FAA facilities but, in the back of my mind, I didn’t think that was the answer. A couple months went by and one day when I opened the “junk drawer” looking for a pencil, the letter from HQ Air Force (that I discarded) mysteriously appeared before me. As I reread the letter, I began to think about how I was enjoying my Air Force Reserve job much more than my civilian job. God then began to niggle my conscience about talking to Him about our plans for the future. My wife and I did just that and I also spoke with my commander at the 392nd CG. He was very enthusiastic about my applying to reenter active duty and immediately wrote a letter of recommendation. I got the application for reinstatement rolling and then waited. A few days later, I was called into my boss’s office at Point Mugu NAS and learned that my civilian job was being eliminated.
That Sunday, our pastor spoke on Genesis 12, the first in a series of three messages we heard on that passage of scripture in a week. It became clear that God was sending us a message that He wanted to make sure we heard: “I put you in the Air Force for a reason and that’s where I want you – wherever, whatever.” When the call came from Air Force Personnel saying we were being “accessed,” we were relieved but not surprised because we really felt by this time that this was what God had in mind for us. When the personnel officer asked where we wanted to go, God had already been working on us; my reply, “Where do you need us?”
God truly blessed our time in the Air Force and we are so glad that He called us back into the Force and allowed us to serve; it truly is a joint effort of husband and wife if you’re married. When 1996 rolled around and it came time to retire, God made it very clear that it was His timing for us to leave the Air Force this time around. An inner-ear issue kept rearing its ugly head and that required the AF to withdraw my AFSC. After retirement we were able to teach an Air Force Junior ROTC program for 12 years in Greenfield, Wisconsin and that was a very fulfilling follow-on profession. God is good all the time and all the time, God is good.
Bill Van Horn
9491 South Johnson Court
Littleton, CO 80127
USAFA Class of '74 - published a book of our experiences for our 40th reunion!