Orange County, CA, late 1960s.
Bill arrived early to the military base to report for work, only to be promptly advised that the meeting had been rescheduled for the next day. He was a subcontractor performing highly specialized electrical engineering work with various clearance authorizations. With the morning freed up he stopped at the commissary for a donut and coffee, then decided to take his Land Cruiser off-roading. It was a unique and reliable vehicle befitting of his character.
He had been off-roading through many of the local hills, but there remained another quadrant that he had not yet engaged. It would happen this morning. He enjoyed being alone in the sunny outdoors away from the nuisance that often came with human interaction. Nothing ever bothered him when he was off-roading. At least, not until today’s incident.
He’d been out for 30 minutes when he approached a hill. He could see where he was going, that is, he could see the front of the hill, but wasn’t exactly sure what was beyond it. Not to worry, he thought, there’s been little else he saw that would be a problem for him or his very capable vehicle. For a thrill he went, perhaps, a little faster than he should have. The vehicle went over the top, a lengthy downhill slope with a rock-laden dry river bed at the bottom awaited him. This, he saw very clearly once he was over the top, but there wasn’t enough distance to stop. All he could do was turn the wheel and prevent a head on collision with a large rock outcropping. A destructive collision was avoided, but the toll had been decisively exacted. The vehicle came to rest lodged solidly between two sets of rocks in an access-deficient ravine. There was no driving away from this, he was stuck!
Bill released his seat belt, got out of the vehicle, and drank from his canteen. He stood back with his hands on his hips to assess this troubling development. “Well, shit,” he concluded. The Land Cruiser was almost fully on it side and only two wheels made contact with the ground. The rocks were much larger than could be moved manually, plus this was an awkward area where it would be difficult to get the necessary heavy equipment in place to extricate the vehicle. ‘Oh well,’ thinking to himself. ‘It’s early, yet. I’ll walk back to where I saw that house and ask for help.’
By 10:00 he reached the dwelling and stood at the front door. He straightened his shirt, dusted his pants off and placed his sunglasses in his shirt pocket. He knocked on the door and hoped for the best. A grizzly looking man answered the door, smirked and said, “What?”
The situation was explained while standing there by the front door. With little other discourse and an absence of pleasantries they took a drive in the man’s Jeep to see the situation and assess the scene of the incident. Standing at the crest of the hill they looked at the Land Cruiser's predicament from 50 feet away and agreed that it appeared solidly wedged.
“Will you help me get the vehicle out,” Bill started off. “We can hook up chains between the two vehicles and pull it loose.”
The other guy was in no mood to be agreeable. “I tell you what. Your car appears good and stuck. Also, you’re trespassing, you’re on my land.”
“Look, I didn’t see a trespassing sign or a fence. I just followed the dirt road. I’m sorry, will you help me out,” Bill offered with a sinking feeling in his stomach.
“I won’t help you with the vehicle. This is my land and I won’t allow a towing service on my land to get the car. But I will help you. The vehicle’s stuck and ain’t going nowhere, might as well be worthless.” After a short pause he continued, “I’ll offer you $100 for it. I’ll even give you a ride back to town.”
The discussion went on for another few minutes and Bill saw this was not going to get fixed to his liking. If you and I were there to witness the close of this discussion we would have seen Bill look him in the eyes and deliver a meaningful and unhurried, “You go to hell.” No deal. He hiked down to the Land Cruiser, transferred the remaining possessions to his backpack and walked away never looking back at his adversary. Two hours and seven miles later he arrived back at the military base where he had started.
Bill was an engineer. As such his life was logic based and he preferred things in their proper sequence. To be denied a logical request was not entirely the problem. It was easily understood that pulling the Land Cruiser out of the ravine would be a difficult feat. Sure, the grizzled guy possibly lacked the means to bring the extraction mission to fruition. It was the blunt declination disallowing help to access his property and the subsequent rip off attempt that burned most fiercely.
He was a resourceful man. Bill had been working steadily at the base for two years intermittently for various projects and had made a number of trusted contacts there. He didn’t know yet how he was going to retrieve his car. He did know, however, that the two-hour walk back to the base left him thirsty, sun-burned and in bad spirits. When his spirits were bad you didn’t want to be on the opposing side causing that discomforting friction. The walk allowed him much needed time to think on how to proceed. He didn’t know how to get his vehicle but he’d start with a direct approach. Ask for help from his friends and acquaintances at the military base.
He was not a military man. More precisely, he had not held an official position or rank in the armed services, but he did grow up on military bases in a military family in Germany during World War II. In the United States he had extensive interaction winning electronic engineering contracts for the U.S. military. Though he lacked official standing he had acquired certain key skills living out this eclectic background in military environments. He knew how to talk their language, how to instill urgency, and compel these types of men to action. It wasn’t always about getting them to do what they shoulddo. Heck, it’s the military, everything they do costs money, gets people killed and/or wastes resources. His plan was to get them to want to show off what theycoulddo. First stop was to visit his friend who lived on base. Bill wanted one opportunity to explain the circumstances, get honest feedback, recraft as needed, then go into action.
“Well hell, Bill, what do you expect the army to do? Roll a tank over his house then fly your car out of the ditch with a helicopter? This is the army, that doesn’t happen,” bluntly spoke his friend after patiently hearing him out from start to finish.
“You should have seen that son of a bitch. I should have punched him in the mouth. I won’t lose to a man like that. Who do I need to talk to for that helicopter,” he said.
“Bill, you’re not hearing me. Not going to happen. Go back to your pal and collect the $100,” responded his friend knowing full well his remark would rile him up further.
“Just tell me who, I’ll figure out what to say on the way over there,” he said.
“What, the helicopter? Sure, good luck, you’ll need the CO’s approval. Look, you can start with the sergeant for practice. If you can’t get past him then your little airlift dream is dead anyway.” And so it began.
Military personnel are not inclined to say or admit what they cannot do. They have been trained and ingrained to topple every situation. Every question is answered in the affirmative. Bill knew, of course, he had no grounds to make a request for assistance. Maybe he could play an ego, find someone who wanted to show what he could do. The skills he acquired in a lifetime’s worth of military exposure were soon to be deployed to their maximum capacity.
The first officer wielded little more power than permission to speak with the next ranking officer. Keeping his talking points simple and on target Bill spoke his piece, then paused. Silence. Maybe 20 seconds. The officer didn’t want to admit he couldn’t do it, naturally. A brief question and answer then the officer decided it was time to talk to his superior officer. They advanced to the next conversation.
Thrice more Bill spoke his piece, hitting the talking points and leaving an opening for each subsequent officer to flex his power. Each meeting was cast forward to the next ranking officer picking up additional people in his entourage. He felt like a snowball rolling forward picking up mass with each rotation. Each officer was self-conscious about not wanting to admit in front of an audience that the decision was beyond his immediate parameters of responsibility. Each simply and strategically suggested they talk to the next superior officer. With the accumulating pageantry of a 4thof July parade all the people from the prior meeting parleyed forward until they were standing before the base’s Commanding Officer. Finally, thought Bill, a decision is bound to be issued here. Only this time he was no longer ’leading the charge,’ as it were. He had met the CO on a prior project, they had met and shook hands, though only in passing.
After hearing out the predicament the CO weighed in, “Look Bill, even if I wanted to help, the helicopter teams have been out all day on training missions.”
“Actually, sir,” sheepishly interjected one officer, “one team’s training was canceled due to a scheduling snafu. It was a recent development. They’re probably still ready and fueled.”
“You know, sir,” started another. “This car retrieval mission could be billed as a training mission. A convenient replacement for this morning’s canceled exercise. There are a number of soldiers in need of a final training run to qualify for certification. Sir, with your authorization I can prepare the paperwork for your signature. Besides, I’ve worked with Bill and he’s a top notch engineer.”
“Of course he’s top notch, otherwise we wouldn’t have hired him. What the hell, if you guys are bent on doing all the work then do it.” The CO paused for a long while and everyone was too surprised at his apparent approval to say anything. They all stood there in silence waiting to see what happened next. “Now, if we’re done here you’re dismissed. I understand the mess hall is serving my favorite for dinner tonight and it’s time to eat. Sloppy joes,” said the CO cavalierly heading out the door and never looking back.
Not twenty minutes later, Bill and the grip of officers were with the helicopter crew. While the officers were issuing orders the enlisted men were running about trying to comply with the orders coming from all directions, one order often conflicting with another. The crew knew what to do, they needed only to be provided orders and left alone, but that was not the military way. Once up in the air they’d be free of the officers’ confusion and they could make their own decisions. This was a good crew and competence would be readily at hand once they were airborne.
Bill calmly boarded the helicopter as the rotors began to spin. He grabbed a helmet off the wall and provided directions to the copilot as the pilot completed the pre-flight checklist. He sat back enjoying the illusion of having a personal helicopter crew under his command.
Once a week the grizzled guy enjoyed what he considered deluxe dining, sloppy joes. At least that’s what he called it. He took his week’s left overs, tossed it all into a pan and warmed it, toasted two hamburger buns, and loaded them up, then added ketchup. He ate this special meal on his sparse porch proudly overlooking his barren land. Today he was eagerly awaiting sufficient time to pass whereby he might claim that slick abandoned Land Cruiser. Well, abandoned was wishful thinking, but really, it was land locked on his property.
He’d spent the entirety of his adult years as a bachelor. Living within these narrow confines handily serviced by a rudimentary set of skills he long ago discarded social graces, good manners and culinary etiquette. He took a gigantic bite of his first sloppy joe then flooded his mouth’s contents with a generous swig of lukewarm lemonade. He was enjoying himself in the delight and recognition that this was the good life. His taste buds were in their full glory with this meal. Just then an odd image started to take shape in the sky from the west. A helicopter, a big one. With the military base nearby these big birds did occasionally dot the skies, though not usually this close. In fact, it appeared to be coming closer.
As three soldiers geared up to descend 50 feet to the Land Cruiser, Bill’s persuasive talents finally met their match as he attempted to be the fourth to descend.
“Sir, these men have the situation under control. Please remain seated,” said the copilot. He watched as the soldiers dropped out of the helicopter.
Before long the three were back aboard, the helicopter slowly ascended and the vehicle emerged after some jostling. Looking back in the excitement of victory, he didn’t recall much of the brief flight back to base. The triumphant exuberance was overwhelming. The vehicle bounced lightly upon return to the base helipad, two soldiers descended to disconnect the load. At final touch down Bill offered effusive thanks to the crew. With the nose of the engine still roaring it’s likely his exact wording was errant of precision, but the message of thanks was clear.
It was late evening and it’d been a long day. The car keys had been in his pocket since the morning’s incident. He inserted the key into the ignition and it started right up. He hadn’t eaten since this morning’s commissary visit, but he wasn’t really hungry for a big meal. He’d decided to stop for donuts and coffee on the drive home.
[Based on Opa’s real life events.]