The Front End  

John Achor

This story began way up north and goes like …

"There are strange things done in the midnight sun,
     By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
     That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
     But the queerest they ever did see
Was the night on the marge of Lake Labarge
     I cremated Sam McGee...

Oops – apologies. Those lines were written by the Bard of the North, Robert Service. But this tale did begin in the frozen north. I met Alan Hansen back in the late 1960s when we were both stationed at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. While Al and I were both assigned to the 24th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, we didn't see one another that often. Al and the rest of his Raven Team 2 spent every other week 1,500 miles west of Eielson out toward the end of the Aleutian Island chain – at Shemya Air Station. My crew only got the call every four or five weeks to spend seven days on that bleak, windswept island. The place was so inhospitable, they've even changed the name. It's now Eareckson Air Station.

Al and I happened to be at Shemya on January 13, 1969 when the plane I was flying, an RC-135S called Rivet Ball, went over the cliff at the end of the runway after landing. The aircraft was destroyed, however all eighteen of us escaped that beat up hulk. But that's another story. Sometime after that, the two of us rotated out of the frozen north for other assignments.

In 1972, give or take a year, I ran into Al again. I know it was more than a year since I'd seen Al, because I'd finished an interim tour, a southern assignment – thirteen glorious months in South Korea. By this time we were at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. We were both in staff jobs so we flew with Base Flight to qualify for our monthly flight pay. I was flying the T29 on this particular day.

I hadn't seen Al since arriving at Offutt, until that day we boarded a crew bus on the way to the flight line. He was already on the bus sitting toward the back. We nodded and waved, but did not have a conversation. The flight was uneventful and when the round-robin ended we got off the plane. I was among the first to board the crewbus for the ride back to Ops and took a seat near the front. Probably busy lighting a cigarette. I used to blow smoke all over my other crewmembers in those days. I'm sorry about that guys, I did quit smoking in the late 80s.

I saw Al get on the bus and was about to speak when he beat me to it. Al didn't break stride or give even a hint of a smile. He looked me in the eye as he passed and said, "Lot better landing than last time."

It broke me up and I'm lucky I didn't choke on that cigarette.

Al is no longer with us. To me he is frozen in time and I can still see him in that photograph of Team 2 – a gleam in his eye and a smile on his lips that made you wonder just what was going on in that mind of his.

I miss you Al. "

© John Achor, 2003
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J. Achor
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