Monday, September 21, 2015

Scraps From an Old Portfolio

Before he died, my maternal grandfather gave me a vinyl portfolio, the kind popular as promotional giveaways in the 1980s with the spring loaded closure.

It was filled with personal papers that had been retrieved from his youngest son’s apartment after he was killed in 1973 while flying near the border of Mexico as a special agent for what is now the DEA.

We called him by his middle name, Ferd, and just seven years apart, we grew up more like brothers, similar in interests and appearance as well as temperament including a way of minimalizing how we express emotions in order to mask how strongly they are felt.Ferd White at time he crasheded

My grandfather hoped I could make sure my uncle was remembered which, in part, is the purpose of this and similar posts.

If they are interested, he would want me to also pass these papers along to his two children should they ever be located one day.

His daughter would be in her mid-50s by now and his son by a different mother, in his early 40s.

I’ve continued to add items to the portfolio as I’ve come across them including his wallet retrieved from when he was killed, along with some details of an arrest, which were found among my mom’s papers when she died earlier this year.

The image above shows his appearance when he was killed.

The arrest record gives a hint of his personality and sense of humor as well as the fact that profiling by law enforcement isn’t new or exclusive to ethnicity.

Six years out of high school in Montpelier, Idaho, Ferd had already completed undergraduate pilot training for the United States Air Force by December 17, 1964, a year after completing enough credits to graduate the previous summer from Utah State University.

His papers include his seat time in T-37s and T—33 Shooting Stars, a lengthened version of the Korean War-era F-80, scale models of which we had built together a decade earlier around our kitchen table on the ranch.

After some seat time in F-105s, Ferd qualified to fly F-4 C Phantoms by October 14, 1965, a state-of-the-art, twin-engine combination jet fighter interceptor and fighter bomber.

This was during a three month period that his 389th Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) was flying out of Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska.

Flying fighter jets along with the altruism of serving his country were his passion.  He had found his calling at age 23, coincidentally, about the same age I would be when I found mine the year he was killed.

But by the time I was recruited to Anchorage in 1978, it was F-15s I was watching take off and land from my office overlooking Ship Creek near its mouth into Cook Inlet and I had forgotten I wasn’t the first with my DNA to live there.

It was the month after the 389th TFA returned to Hollomon AFB, a few miles outside Alamogordo, New Mexico and two months before it began operations over Vietnam that Ferd was arrested.

Alamogordo was just over 20,000 people back then and hot-shot fighter pilots were conspicuous, especially one in a brand new, sky blue Mustang convertible.

Today places that size have about 40 police officers on patrol but I’ll be it was half that number in January 1966 when a Sgt. Baker observed my uncle driving along a street and then suddenly stopping to back up and accelerate down a side street 10 miles over the posted speed limit.

When the officer pulled Ferd over and asked about his actions, my uncle quipped “I was in a hurry.”  When the officer noted that he would have to cite Ferd for reckless driving, my uncle quipped “Well go ahead and write the ticket I’m still in a hurry.”

Probably enough smart ass to go around on both parts, but the officer escalated the situation by saying that he would then have to take my uncle into the station as “a good object lesson.”

After being reprimanded by his commander, Ferd appeared in court the next morning where he apologized, pled guilty and paid a $50 fine.

Less than 60 days later, Ferd was flying missions over South Vietnam out of Phan Rang Airbase in support of ground troops.

By October, after flying home to attend my grandmother’s funeral, Ferd was flying out of Da Nang Airbase on what would be more than 300 missions (sorties) over heavily defended North Vietnam.

Combat fighter pilots were limited to 100 “out-of-country” missions over North Vietnam per tour.  His personal life troubled, Ferd kept “re-upping” for additional tours, where he excelled in combat flying.

Flying a fighter plane, no matter how hazardous the conditions or how many friends were shot down, was what he was meant to do.

Highly decorated with a Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with 26 oak leaf clusters, and even a Bronze Star, Ferd was discharged from active duty on December 18, 1968.

It was brought about the month prior when President Lyndon B. Johnson placed North Vietnam off limits to U.S. fighter aircraft.

While he could never understand why I repeatedly tried every avenue I could to follow in his footsteps between 1967 and 1971, but was turned down, he admitted that he had never felt as alive as he did in combat over North Vietnam.

For 10 months he flew for Thompson Air Service in Utah which did business as Interwest Inc. but it didn’t feel like flying.  His kindred spirit would have been its founder Tailspin Tommy, a stunt pilot who was killed piloting a United Airlines DC-3 when it crashed into San Francisco Bay in 1937.

During his time at Interstate/Thompson, Ferd was repeatedly turned down by commercial airlines due to a combat injury he received while crash landing in Vietnam.

Dejected, he even worked a year in marketing for Mountain Bell Telephone Co. in Salt Lake, but he felt numb.

Then in January 1972 Ferd got on with the DEA as a special agent.  He could fly again with a purpose.

It was dangerous undercover work along both sides of the Arizona border with Mexico, infiltrating and disrupting the notorious Dominguez Family.

Fifteen month later when he was killed, he had just turned 31.

This was a few months before my daughter and only child was born.  It has been more than 40 years now but I still think of him often, as does my younger sister, especially.

The portfolio spans much more of his life than the 9 years from when he discovered his passion in life and his death.  Every time I go through it I learn something new about Ferd as well as myself.

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