Excerpt: Red, White, and True

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This Memorial Day, we pay tribute to the brave men and women who have given their lives serving our country. 

The following is an excerpt from Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present (Potomac Books, 2014), edited and with an introduction by Tracy Crow. 

From Chapter 3: Remembering Forgotten Fliers, Their Survivors

By Kathleen M. Rodgers

My friend Petey white-knuckles the steering wheel when she’s driving on base and a fighter plane screeches overhead, approaching the runway.

She still gets wiped out when she goes to a symphony concert or hears a trumpet solo.

It’s been twelve years, or roughly four thousand days, since her beautiful, poetic music man/pilot died in a midair crash near a tomato farm in eastern New Mexico. The F-111 her husband was piloting was on a final approach when a civilian aircraft, flying in military airspace, collided with his jet. Roy and his navigator ejected, but the ejection capsule hit the earth like a two-ton brick. The altitude of the F-111 at time of impact was too low for the ejection capsule to function properly.

Roy Westerfield was taken too soon—when his song was just beginning. He was an exceptional pilot, husband, and father and a good friend of ours. Just the mention of his name and my husband, Tom, sighs with awe at how extremely talented and gifted Roy was. He was not your average jet jockey or musician. He was a masterpiece of a man. A walking, talking, flying composition in the making. He wrote arrangements on a baby grand piano in his home. If Roy had lived, his music would’ve winged its way into the professional world.

My last vivid memory of Roy was at the Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, chapel in October 1979. He played the “Lord’s Prayer” on the trumpet at my wedding, and today I still get misty-eyed remembering the evening Roy conjured up a little taste of heaven out of the mouth of that horn. Shortly after the wedding, my husband and I moved to Arizona. Four months later, in a farmer’s field only miles from the base chapel, the music died.

For those of us who knew Roy, a little bit of us went with him. My husband took the news like most fighter pilots do. He drank a beer for Roy at the club at his new duty station and talked among fellow pilots about this latest “peacetime” crash. Then stoically, he stuffed the tragedy into one of those handy little storage bins in the mind and “pressed on.” As all fighter pilots must do after a crash. It’s called compartmentalizing, and they’re all very good at it.

Six months later Tom would perform the same rituals again. Another friend, Sam Taylor, the son of one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, was killed just a few miles from where Roy had “bought the farm.” Sam’s F-111 just flew into the ground, as they say in the fighter business.

My husband, who’d wanted to fly airplanes since he was three years old, was “Captain Unemotional” during the day at work and at social gatherings where other pilots might be present. But sometimes in the evenings at home, when the flight suit had been unzipped and slung over the top of the bathroom door, Tom would let the walls to some of those little compartments come tumbling down. He used to sit in his recliner, sip a beer, and weep, silent streams running endlessly down his face, wetting the neckline of his T-shirt.

Then he would open up and mention all the names of all the men he’d known since pilot school . . . like John Sweeney, Lou Tallman, or Rick Cardinas, whose father flew the B- 29 Superfortress that launched Chuck Yeager and the X-1 Glamorous Glennis into the history books and who found out only hours before he died that he was going to be a daddy.

There were others whom Tom never personally knew—the legends—like Colonel Tommy Thompson and A- 10 Thunderbolt II demonstration pilot Sam Walker. I didn’t understand it all back then. How a man like my husband could be one way in front of his fellow pilots—as if uncaring—and then so unabashedly emotional with me. That was years ago and I was young. Over time I’ve come to realize a couple of things about military pilots: that their lack of emotional demonstrations among each other is probably a defense mechanism and that, all too sadly, many of them die.

My first “reality check” took place three weeks after I was married. Tom and I were living in a little motel outside the gate of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. Tom was going through A-10 training, and I was nervous about him transitioning from the F- 111 to the Air Force’s newest single- seat attack plane.

One evening on the 6:00 o’clock news, as I sat waiting for Tom to come home from work, the television reporter announced that an A-10 from Davis-Monthan had crashed in the desert and the pilot had been killed. I thought it was Tom. I sat frozen for what seemed like hours, waiting, not knowing what to do. Then I heard Tom’s car pull up outside the room, and I collapsed into him when he walked in the door. The pilot who died was Harry Whal. He sat next to Tom in academics.