Thursday, December 04, 2008

Taken for a ride

I've recently been flying more often than was true for about two months. Generally speaking, travel by helicopter is pretty enjoyable -- well, except for the whole having-to-wear-body-armor and will-they-shoot-at-us-this-time? parts.

As I'd mentioned in an earlier post, I'd never experienced military helicopter flight before showing up here Down Range (so much for, "we train as we fight," I guess). I've found it to be fun -- most of the time.

Not too long ago I was on my way somewhere with a Rent-A-Chaplain-Assistant, since SFC McG has been off on a mission without me for the past couple of weeks. Amazing how I've come to rely on his presence and equanimity in the short time we've known each other!

Unflappable is a great word to describe him.

He has an uncanny knack for being able to put the best spin on just about any situation, and I've rarely *seen* him angry. (I suspect that's at least in part because he's good at keeping a calm and happy demeanor.)

So there I was with my Rent-A-Chaplain-Assistant as we were flying to a place I'd never visited before. It's not all that distant from where we started, and yet the schedule had us taking an hour to get where we were going. Seemed odd, but not spectacularly so.

Turns out we were transporting a Marines Mugwump from where we initiated our travel to a Landing Zone (LZ) where only Mugwumps can land (I'd already been on aircraft that had landed there before, so that wasn't such a big deal), but that didn't really take much time.

We then landed at another place, but again for only a short time. Our next stop was supposed to be our destination, but we still had about 40 minutes until our scheduled stop. Five minutes later we were over our destination, but just kept flying.


It was a beautiful day, and the sun was setting, so the sky was awash in rather intense colors and cloud formations. Because of the rains we've had in the last month or so, the fields below us -- many of them, at least -- resembled small, midwestern U.S. farm plots in the springtime.

Gorgeous, really.

Incredibly bright green rectangles interspersed with dull gray fallow fields, some of which were quite large, and almost invariably held the ghostly remains of a bombed-out large house.

The wounds of war are visible all across the body of Mother Earth everywhere I've traveled here.

As the sun set, the earthen berms which marked off the boundaries of the rectangular patches of soil appeared almost purple. The rows of young, bright green plants within each rectangle seemed an attempt to restore order to a chaotic environment.

There below us was new life struggling to take hold and achieve success in the short time before the withering heat returns -- or the bombs begin to fall again, I suppose.

In any event, it was idyllic. Great beauty, again, in the midst of a war zone. Great day for flying. Great flight.




Without warning, the helicopter suddenly zigged to the left, and then zagged to the right.

This caught me completely off-guard, in the midst of my late-afternoon aerial reverie. The helicopter sped up so quickly, the G-forces started pushing me against my lap and shoulder harnesses (I was facing the rear of the aircraft). I didn't know those things could go that fast!

(Why don't they fly that fast when it's after midnight and I've been on mission for twelve hours already, and really, really want to get home to bed?)

Then, all of a sudden, the nose of the helicopter was up, and the tail was down, and I was suspended by the lap and shoulder harnesses, facing downward. (Well, almost, anyway.)

The aircraft was climbing vertically, rather than ascending horizontally. This was a new experience for Fr. Tim. When I found myself wondering when, not if, the craft was going to flop over on its back, I decided it was time to say the Serenity Prayer.

Actually, I found myself singing the Serenity Prayer, again and again, to a jaunty little tune I came up with on my way over here after Summer Camp - South.

My Rent-A-Chaplain-Assistant, who was seated directly opposite me (and who was, at this point, directly beneath me), looked distinctly green -- and he's been in the Army for 14 years.

Just as suddenly as the ascent began, we leveled off, with the attendant sloshing of internal organs which accompanies a sudden loss of G-forces. Nanoseconds later we were diving earthward, with me looking up at my Rent-A-Chaplain-Assistant, hoping against hope he wasn't going to "lose it" (do the math!).

He was having a tough time.

More musical Serenity Prayer repetitions.

We hurtled toward the ground, going faster yet. No longer envisioning the aircraft turning upside down, I felt assaulted by the notion of a not-so-soft reaquaintance with terra firma.

My friends who go to a lot of Al-Anon meetings tell me that "whatever I feed, grows," so when I'm angry or afraid (for example), if I focus on the anger or fear, it just gets bigger. But if I move my attention to something delicate or pretty, like a flower or a sunset or a melody, I'm not feeding the monster.

Therefore I decided I'd focus my attention on the clouds out the window directly to my right, because the setting sun had illuminated them in a particularly wonderful fashion.

So there I was watching the sunset, as we were rocketing toward the ground, when suddenly I was watching the ground directly beneath me, because we'd gone into a sharp turn. The centrifugal (or is it centripetal?) forces slammed me back into my seat, and we executed an amazingly sharp turn. I did notice the rather long shadows being cast by the date palms beneath us with the sun just above the horizon at that point.

That sharp turn just kept going and going and going. I wondered what the dozen or so sheep being herded along the road beneath us thought about this loud contraption above them. Had I been the shepherd, I'd probably have felt somewhat intimidated by the rather large weapon protruding out the window of that contraption, which was pointed directly at the ground where I was walking.... And we kept circling.

Imagine the Energizer Bunny moving horizontally in a circle, 50 meters above ground.

How do you spell 'vertiginous'? (Then again, who'd want to?)

By this point I was pretty sure that the pilot was just practicing, and that we were not really in imminent danger from some enemy on the ground. The gunners had not engaged their weapons, and while we seemed to be executing tactical movements, we kept doing them essentially over the same area.

Since we weren't firing at anything, and we weren't getting the heck outta Dodge, I felt pretty confident we were being treated (unfairly? (at least to hear my Rent-A-Chaplain-Assistant later)) to a rehearsal for some air show or other.

I actually almost enjoyed the experience. Almost. One should remember that I do not like -- in fact I actually intentionally eschew -- roller coaster rides.

It sure felt as though we were on a roller coaster, but there was no track above, beneath, or beside us. It's bad enough, in my estimation, to be on one of those things (last time, for me was more than a decade ago, case in point) at least knowing there's some sort of support structure providing a modicum of safety against unfortunate gravitational interactions.

In the helicopter, tossed and whirled about, there's no such buffer against gravity, except the proper functioning of rotor blades and pilots.

I was grateful for the Serenity Prayer and that I was remembering to breathe -- great spiritual exercises when in a crunch [poor choice of word?].

Eventually the ride slowed down and smoothed out and we made our way to our destination LZ.

The sun had set by that time, and the last vestiges of roseate daylight had given way to the dusty dusk of an Iraqi desert.

I was reminded later by a friend that people pay good money for rides like that.

I reminded him that I'm not usually one of them, though I'm secretly hoping it'll happen again.

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Tim.... so sorry I missed your last TWO calls!!! Les and I are heartsick that I picked up the phone after. Is there a way for me to call you?

I am trying to get your address - can you believe I lost it?

We were having so much goings on - went to LBK, gave a wedding shower, Hilton Head with my family, Toronto, NYC (for Lauren's show), back to LBK and up to NC, etc and back to LBK. Thank goodness we found a renter. Love you very much - want to communicate! Read the blog.. Holly & Les

Anonymous said...

Did you ever find out the reason for the diversionary tactics?

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