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The General

At 23, I ached to be a fighter pilot and follow in the footsteps of several famous aviators I knew. Russian pilots in MIG-15s were playing hell with our F-86's over the Yalu River. I joined the Air Force, but the Korean war ended while I was still in flight training. I felt unresolved. In addition to flight duties, the Air Force trained me in finance in deference to peacetime. Orders came through to report to Brigadier General Grossly, the Commanding Officer (CO) of the Office of Scientific Research in Washington, DC.

Considering an anti-climatic global situation, my excitement ebbed until I began to take stock of my opportunity; I had received a "Secret" clearance in a highfalutin Washington operation that acted as a funding authority for emerging technology. But, why pick me? I knew little about advanced technology, my school grades reflected less than perfect studies, and it probably had nothing to do with my newly acquired flying skills in single-engine jets.

This momentary feeling of inadequacy triggered the thought of Groucho's classic letter to Hillcrest which stated: "Please accept my resignation. I don't care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."

When I reached the Capital for the first time, nervous anticipation soon combined with the thrill of being there The headquarters building stood adjacent to the Mall and those glorious monuments. Most of the office personnel wore dark suits, rather than dress blues, indicating a very serious environment. The General received me immediately with a polite greeting. Right out of central casting, he struck me as a spindly John Wayne. He wore the wings of a Command Pilot. I learned later that he had enjoyed a moment of fame by flying a helicopter onto the steps of Congress-probably the work of a defense contractor attempting to wangle an appropriation.

During our initial small talk, things took on a surreal quality. He spoke with a deep southern accent: Mississippi I guessed. His thought process and delivery seemed disturbingly tentative. Despite a proper military appearance, his obtuse verbal style gave me pause. For instance, his description of this discreet financial think-tank operation could have been mistaken for the Motor Pool.

Hold on! Was I slipping into that all too familiar conditioned response that often flared up when I confronted an authority figure that was wanting? God! How I hated this feeling when it came over me. It was juvenile and intolerant, but worse, the consequences usually became self-destructive. I struggled to squelch the feeling until the General looked up from viewing my personnel file and confronted me; "Didn't you go to Harvard? I don't see it in your file. All of my officers went to Harvard. What the hell is going on here?"

I replied, "Sir, I did not go to the Harvard in Cambridge. I went to Harvard Military School in North Hollywood, California."

The General took a deep breath, gripped the arms of his swivel chair, and began a full-bodied isometric, as if he were resisting G-forces. It resembled a corny motion picture slow-burn, a seizure of parochialism. My turn to say something, but words failed me-nonplussed for sure. Intuitively, I knew he was not a Harvard boy himself; but under the circumstances, I resisted the instinctive reply, " I guess that makes two of us, Sir."

In an instant, I went from being the promised child to the proverbial rotten apple. While he feared his august personnel compromised; I reasoned a pinch of diversity might improve the order. I hoped, however, that he wouldn't hold this Harvard thing against me.

The next day at work, I began mixing-it-up with the Harvard "guys." They were just great, especially my immediate superior, Colonel Sharply. I learned the General's Adjutant, also a First Lieutenant and pilot, managed to make himself unavailable much of the time, especially for weekend or night flights. As the non-Harvard interloper, I stood in for him when the General wanted to go somewhere in his personal C-47, an old tail-dragger nicknamed "Gooney Bird" by World War II pilots.

In order to fly this relic, I should have passed a flight check. However, a freaked-out check pilot aborted my takeoff when I tapped the brake, instead of pushing on the rudder, to maintain directional control (an instinctive procedure in a jet takeoff, but the preparatory movement for a ground-loop in a Gooney Bird). The word of this blunder spread; and, thereafter, none of the check pilots dared risk giving me a second opportunity. So, I just went about the business of flying the General around while learning the plane-the hard way.

An example of this occurred one night when the the General's prankish Adjutant secretly switched the starboard engine fuel line to "Off" and left the cockpit, presumably to enjoy the General's reaction-at my expense-to the inevitable engine failure and spiral which would soon occur. Feeling my dinner about to come up, I wrestled the controls to recover from the Gooney Bird's sudden plunge. I was too startled and amused to take a poke at the Adjutant when he returned to the cockpit.

One afternoon, I radioed flight control to change our flight plan while en route, but the General refused repeatedly to accept the assigned new altitude, telling me to insist on 6000 feet-for no particular reason. Flight control could not abide going around-and-around over the matter and angrily requested the name, rank and serial number of the pilot in command. With pleasure, I removed my headset and handed it to the General saying, "They want to talk to you, Sir."

On a trip to Chicago's famous O'Hare Airport, one of the world's busiest, the tower ignored my repeated requests for landing instructions. The General had no patience and ordered; "Go ahead and land anyway."

I pointed out commercial airliners all around us. In fact, we were flying formation with a DC-4 down final approach. The O'Hare tower flashed a large red beam of light directly at us, a universal refusal for permission to land.

The General said, "Ignore it!"

I continued on final, forcing the commercial DC-4 on our right to break-off and go-around, and landed as ordered. The General deplaned and I taxied out for departure. After several hours of idling at the end of the runway, the tower cleared me for takeoff. I wondered if they would file an official accomplaint.

One busy Friday night over Washington, D.C., I was setting-up for an entry into the landing pattern at Bolling AFB. The field bordered the Potomac River, just short of-but in-line with- the runway at Anacostia Naval Air Station. Large numbers of twinkling running lights appeared indistinguishable from the stars making the estimate of relative distance of each light in our path a flip of the coin: Either a galaxy away or a scary few hundred feet. "Never mind", I told myself, "Just fly the plane."

Although aware of conditions, my contumacious one-star General shouted out, "Go ahead, I want to land NOW."

Continued on Page 2

To contact Robert Harrell, Email Robert at harrell@zeecon.com
Copyright © 2003, Robert D. Harrell, all rights reserved
Horseshoe Bay, TX
June, 2003

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Robert Harrell was born in the early 1930's. An avid sailor and golfer, he lives in Horseshoe Bay, Texas.
Robert Harrell