Friday, July 02, 2010

Once He Was Like My Brother

I spotted the familiar tail identification during a visit many years ago to the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Apparently (on loan there from the Smithsonian) it was one of the fighter planes in the squadron in which Captain George F. White flew during a couple of tours and more than 300 air combat missions, most over North Vietnam.

He was like a brother growing up but we lost touch as he went to Utah State University and then into the Air Force. Telling was the AK on the tail and the important red/white markings, noting it was rotated among pilots in the 389th TFS of the 366 TFW at Da Nang Air Base. It appears in family photographs.

01726_p_aaeuyfyqe1750_z Just 7 years older than me and the youngest of my Mother’s siblings, George F. White was really my uncle but more like a brother as I was growing up.

I’m sure I was pesky but Ferd (he went by his middle name with family) always took me with him on adventures during frequent visits, sometimes just to the basement to look through my Grandfather’s National Geographic magazines for well, you know what, or thumbing through Ian Fleming’s racy James Bond novels.

We hunted Magpies, on which there was then a bounty in Idaho, 7 cents if I remember correctly. We burned our fingers misusing "caps.” We had sword fights using giant hypodermic needles designed for livestock until my Grandfather found out when I lodged one in the palm of Ferd’s hand.Reyn and Ferd

As was his way, Ferd didn’t show much emotion. Great sense of humor but no emotion, ever.

I inherited most of his hand-me-downs including an old rusty bike with huge balloon tires, perfect for learning to ride on the downhill gravel road next to our ranch house.

When he worked summers on our ranch, we built model airplanes at night sitting around the kitchen table and then blew them up in flight laden with firecrackers.

Then we lost touch. The seven year gap in our ages was exagerated when I reached 12 and he was finishing high school. He had always wanted to be a pilot and it ultimately consumed him. Maybe it was something to do with earning the Bronze Star or the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters or the Air Medal with 26. But I think it was the adrenalin that consumed him along with nearly all of his personal relationships.389th_Fighter_Squadron

He was bored and felt lost following the war and unable to fly for the airlines because of an ear drum damaged in an explosion. We never reconnected after he got back and just before he turned 30 he was accepted and trained as a Special Agent pilot for what is now the DEA, Drug Enforcement Agency and then called the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Before his death in a plane crash in Arizona he was awarded a Special Achievement Award for his work on the notorious Dominguez crime Family a6d0_35of Sonora, Mexico.

He was the 18th Agent killed in the Agency’s history, one of three in just 1973 alone. But since Ferd was killed, 62 more agents have died in the line of duty.

It is dangerous work, the kind, I think, that made Ferd feel alive. He also died doing the two things he loved, flying, while serving our country but the Ferd I had known probably died somewhere over North Vietnam during all of those combat missions. I wish I had asked more questions.

We never really talked much after he returned from Vietnam, even while roofing my Grandfather’s garage one summer. I was in college and trying my best to get around a draft rejection and enlist. Feelings had turned against the war including his own, at least under the limitations it was being fought. I even tried his route, an end run through ROTC but got rejected there too. I know he thought I was crazy and so do I now.

I'm proud of him and Ferd often crosses my mind along with the memories of when he was like my older brother. Especially at this time of year when he seems so emblematic of a lot of people fighting for our country.

But I deeply regret that at some level, I never really knew him. To all the Captain White's out there, thank you, come home safe and bring your soul back with you.

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