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Published: December 24th 2013
Noah and Karen
Our son has deployed overseas. The night before he left, his Mother and I quietly packed his duffel in his room. Once littered with Goosebumps books, scuffed sneakers and noisy neighborhood kids it is now the quietest room in our home. I go inside once a month to vacuum and dust but I do not dwell there. I have lost the reason to. I find no sadness within. To me it is simply an unoccupied room. Memories of his childhood sustain me. My Grandmother taught me that remembrance and presence are one and the same. My son is always with me. In me. Children move on and their parents' lives move forward in tenuous tandem. Learning how to do so with dignity is the hardest part.
My father served in the Army as did his father and his father before. I do not know why we all chose the Army. You would think that at least one of the men might have gone off and tried another branch but none of us did although my younger sister did a stint in the Navy. So when our son told us that he had joined the Army I was a little surprised.
Jim in Uniform
This is the only picture I have of Jim in his dress uniform. Thanks to Peggy Denson.
I had been waxing poetic on the Air Force. Better duty, better bases and those beautiful blue uniforms. Why the Army? 'Tradition', he replied and I was chagrined for not having given import to that which he found so obvious.
I followed his time through basic training and AIT (advanced individual training) with interest. It had been 40 year since I walked the same path. The days of the ‘Citizen Soldier’ ended with the termination of the draft. The results are sobering. Less than 17% of Congressional members today have had any military service. The last Commander in Chief with experience in combat was George H. Bush. These are the leaders who, in the end, decide when, where and how our military men and women will be utilized. The results, thus far, have been mixed at best. The Congressional Research Service has documented 144 military deployments since the ending of the draft in 1973, compared with 19 deployments in the 27 years of the draft following World War II. An increase in military force due largely to the cultural distance that now separates the civilian and military sectors of the US. Less than 0.5% of US citizens serve in
Total of 5 Army troops in this class of 20.
the armed forces. We are creating what Samuel Adams called "A body distinct". That is; A standing Army that exists apart from the civilian world. Our own 'Praetorian Guard'.
Today’s Army is more professional, more deadly and better focused than the one I was a part of. When I joined in 1971 the Army was a demoralized force. Soldiers who had been physically and psychologically abused in Vietnam by a body count fixated Presidency were then ostracized back home for having done their duty. The relationship between enlisted men and officers was poor at best and murderous at worst. Soldiers today, more often than not, come from two-parent, middle-class households where at least one of the parents has prior service. Entry requirements to get into the military are tough. You must pass a gauntlet of academic and physical tests to even merit consideration for enlistment. And even then, 14% of recruits who make it through the testing phase are unable to complete the rigors of Army Basic and AIT. The Pentagon estimates that only 25% of young American men meet the moral, academic and physical standards for military service. I smile when people refer to the military as the
Ila, Jim, Noah and Jeff
Taken in Alamogordo in 2008.
last option for the unemployed. A puerile acquaintance once asked me, with incredulity, if I was proud of my son’s choosing to serve. How could I not be?
My son did his technical training at a Navy base where his classmates were sailors and Marines. The US military offers the finest technical training in the world if you can cut it. Long days of intensive classroom work to which the military has added hours of muscle wracking physical training, sudden inspections and forced marches under combat loads. Fail any part of the training and you will either be recycled or forced out of school and into a less ‘taxing’ job. As part of the US military’s cost cutting program many bases have been combined to produce hybrids like Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Joint Base Langley/Eustis. This trend continues and I can see a time when all US service personnel will be wearing the same uniform. The number of Air Force bases is declining. For example: Pope Air Force Base became Pope Army Airfield in 2011. It’s as if the Air Force were becoming the Army Air Corps once again. A 2009 RAND report said that, by 2016, the Air
As relaxed as I've ever seen him.
Force will have fewer than 1,000 fighter aircraft in its inventory, which represents only 32 percent of the number in 1989. In 1998 the US Navy had 60 ships protecting the seaward approaches to the United States. Today there are 20.
The drive to the airport was quiet. There was nothing to say that hadn’t been said. At the terminal our son checked his bag and we walked him to the boarding area. I imposed upon a woman to take a photo of the three of us. Our son stood between his Mother and I. Taller, stronger, he draped his arms over our shoulders. We leaned into his heart as he held us. The camera’s flash marking the commencement of his new life. He backed away with his arms upraised and a smile on his face. Got on the airport shuttle and headed off into harm’s way. What Hemingway termed: “The authentic life.” Now we were free to cry and we did.
We didn’t go home. Karen’s Uncle Jim had died the day before, and so, teary eyed, we headed west, cruising I-10 to El Paso and then north to Alamogordo, New Mexico. We thought of nothing but
Jim, Karen and Stacey at Dog Canyon in Oliver Lee State Park
Jim introduced me to this place. I have been back many times and always think of him when I do.
our son the rest of that first day on the road. We were pulled between two emotional poles. Looking at the dashboard clock we would plot his course across the sea with our minds’ eye. By the time we hit San Antonio at 2 AM I could picture him getting off his plane surrounded by a company of excited young troops eager to see what there was to see and to do what was asked of them. I heard the NCO’s ordering them to secure their gear and board transport to their new homes. In truth; I envied them all. Only then was I able to turn my thoughts westward.
I met Karen’s uncle during a family reunion in Alamogordo in July of 1987. Jim was a retired Air Force pilot. Veteran of Vietnam and the cold war. Big man. Tall and broad-shouldered. Hard to believe that a cockpit could contain him but it did for many years. Ila, his wife, kept the family running while he was away. He met her in Roswell, New Mexico on a blind date in 1955 after his first training solo. They married in September of ’57. They have four grown children. Dan,
Liz, Peggy and Jeff. Any military wife or husband can tell you that the moment the spouse deploys is when tires suddenly go flat, toilets clog up and children get sick. For every ‘Great Santini’ in the air there is a grounded alter-ego who pays the bills, nurses the children and keeps the family together. Ila could write the How-To book on that one.
The first time I saw Jim he was lying on his living room floor in front of the TV with a troop of Grand-kids draped across his broad back like contented monkeys lounging on a desert isle. They were watching the old Disney film ‘Jungle Book’. I was mesmerized by the scene. And so, while King Louie belted out ‘I Want To Be Like You’, Jim patted the carpet next to him. I sat on the floor, one of the kids wrapped their arms around my neck and with that I was caught. Hook, line and sinker.
As veterans friendship came easily to us. All who have served understand the innate trust that we have in each other. A faith that is inordinately difficult to explain to the uninitiated. Military life strips away pretense
Karen, Ila and Jim
Jim loved nothing better than to have a girl in one hand and a plate of food in the other.
and lays bare both your limitations and your talents. By the assiduous use of barbers and uniforms you and your fellows are quickly made aware of how alike we all are. Only through your subsequent actions can you define your value to the unit. Your Squad, your Platoon, your Company, your Battalion, your Wing. The unit becomes your life and it does not suffer fools gladly. If you have something to do, do it. If you need help, ask. If you can assist, do so and if you have nothing to add, then keep your trap shut. The purposeful life. You start military service with acquaintances and end it with lifelong friends. Thoughtlessness is replaced by gravitas, fear with rationality and timidity with grit.
During a particularly chaotic morning the kids were running around the house full-tilt-boogie while Ila reigned over a kitchen full of women cooking mess hall quantities of chow for evening dinner. Jim suggested that he and I escape for a while and hike nearby White Sands. We parked the car and climbed a steep dune. Jim led the way. His hands buried deep in the pockets of his denim shorts. His head slung low as
a mule's in harness. He plowed a straight, snowy furrow all the way to the park’s boundary. We saw hundreds of fresh hoof tracks in the wet valley floors between the gypsum hills. During this time Jim was retired from the Air Force but flying an A-7 for Raytheon during the Patriot missile tests over the Tularosa. He said that during these circuitous flights he often spied herds of wild horses hidden within the dunes. He was 57 years old then and still curious as a boy. Our many conversations were punctuated by sprints to his home library for answers to important questions like; What do baby Koala bears eat or: What form of Tritium is used to trigger hydrogen bombs. With the question answered we’d move on to the next unknown and the next and the next. He reminded me that learning is a lifelong process and of the two forms, informal learning is superior. Learning from living and interacting with others is much more real and of far greater importance than formal schooling. I’ve never forgotten this lesson. It is why Karen and I still travel in our dotage.
Flying was Jim’s first love. He was a
Jim Denson and friend 1988 Alamogordo NM
Jim was always happiest in the company of a few, well inebriated, fellow pilots.
superb pilot. I know this because he told me so every chance he got. During his military career he flew the F-4, A-7, B-47, B-58 and the B-52. Of those his favorite was the B-58 for its supersonic capability. He told me that his only Air Force regret was that he had never been in a dogfight. His gaze locked on the western horizon as if he were deciphering some twisting calligraphy of contrails drifting against the denim-blue sky. “I would have liked to have done that, just once.” He said this softly and when his eyes came back to mine he gave me a small, wry smile. He believed that the Korean conflict was a just war and was proud to have been a part of the Strategic Air Command. From the very beginning of the Southeast Asian conflict he never felt that the US had a role in Vietnam but he did his duty, pulled his tours and kept his trap shut.
On warm desert nights, he and I would sometimes sit in low-slung lawn chairs and watch the planes from Holloman AFB flying overhead on training missions. Our fingertips playing at the cool lawn. Those Air
Heading back to Ft. Sill after the 2012 holiday.
Force pilots over Alamogordo have been replaced today by German fighter jocks honing their skills above the Tularosa. The German Air Force has a significant presence in Alamogordo. If you do see an American military aircraft it is usually a Predator or Reaper drone ‘piloted’ by a person who lives nearby and who will return home that evening to dinner with the family after their shift is done.
Holloman is the primary flight training center for drone operations. Drones are taking over the skies as the Air Force, Navy and the Army incorporates the unmanned technology into their force structures. As of June 2012 there were 64 drone bases in the continental US operated by the Department of Defense. The military trains more people to fly drones than it does manned aircraft. This will change as the next step is fully autonomous drones. Imagine, if you dare, a world patrolled 24/7 by armed drones that can think and act without human intervention. Skynet is coming folks. Guys like Jim are going the way of the Dodo.
Forced at age 65 to give up flying I did not think that Jim would last long without a plane in his
Mike, Noah and Karen
January 2013 after BCT graduation.
life but he did. He lived another 17 years with Ila in Alamogordo. When a man feels himself getting old, almost as old as he believes he will ever be, he becomes reflective. Jim had slowed down. Bad knees and breathing problems had put an end to our hikes but the conversations never stopped. It’s those talks more than anything that I will miss. A few months before he died, Karen and I went out to Alamo for a week. As we said our goodbyes Jim hugged me to himself and asked me to tell my son how proud he was of him. The passing of the guard. I took a long look at Jim’s face and his eyes confirmed what I already knew. Time waits for no one. When he took his last conscious breath he did so, suddenly, during cocktail hour at his home and in the arms of his wife; Ila, his son Dan, his grandson Wes and his Great Grandson Bradley. We should all be so fortunate.
During that first family reunion Jim was scheduled to do a test flight. We loaded everybody into a convoy of cars and headed out to Holloman. While Jim put his gear on, the flight crew entertained the children in the hangar. They helped the little ones into their very own jet fighters and equipped them with adult-sized flight helmets that engulfed their tiny heads like olive drab pumpkins.
They towed Jim’s plane out and wound up the engine. Jim emerged, resplendent in his green flight suit. Ramrod straight. Hands on hips. His hair gleaming like burnished copper under the mid-day sun. He looked like the best fighter pilot in the world. Which he had always assured me he was. The kids ran to him as the engine’s RPM’s climbed and the tarmac shook. The screaming turbine set the desert air ashimmer. Toddlers clung to Jim’s legs like bear cubs to an oak in a gale. Jim smiled and ran the flats of his big hands over their tousled crowns like a farmer taking measure of his crop and then he threw his head back and laughed happily. That’s how I’ll always remember the man. As the greatest pilot I’ll ever know.
Author's Note: I owe a huge debt to Jim's Grand-daughter Sara for allowing me access to a taped interview she did with Jim regarding his time in the military and his childhood. Listening to his voice was a tremendous help in writing this piece. Thank You Sara.
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