Eric Chandler, Duluth News Tribune
Published Sunday, September 28, 2008
Two weeks ago, I stood in the dark under the full harvest moon and watched some of my fellow F-16 pilots ride a torch of afterburner flame into the night sky. They would land on the other side of the Atlantic, on their way to the war. A “pond crossing” can be humbling in a single-engine jet. I wished them luck, walked back inside the squadron, and reflected on this exclamation point to a remarkable week.
First, the city marked the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. I went to the ceremony at the Depot and reflected on how those events ultimately brought my family to Duluth. I’ll never forget how my dad called me and said, “Turn on your TV.”
Then, the day after the Sept. 11 remembrance, there was a gathering at Spirit Mountain to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 148th Fighter Wing Bulldogs. On Sept. 17, 1948, 50 men gathered at the airport and, with a fleet of F-51D Mustangs, started an organization that thrives now with 20 times more people flying F-16 Fighting Falcons. Two of the founding members of the wing were at the party. There were former wing commanders and squadron commanders; the legends of the outfit that built the place. I felt pretty small — as I do during a pond crossing.
The following day, my wife and children joined me at the base for Family Day. There were lots of rides and games for kids. I got a picture of my daughter with me in the cockpit of the F-16. Despite the rain, there were a lot of smiles. This day morphed into the 30th annual 148 FW Oktoberfest. I had a tasty adult beverage while my family met a couple, Roy and Angie Meyer, who live just up the street. Roy said, “I used to be a cool F-89 pilot.” And a school principal in his spare time. It’s not every day you sit down next to a Scorpion pilot from the ’60s while the Singing Slovenes are belting out “Ein Prosit.”
Here’s the kicker. Lots of people went directly from the party and walked right up the ramp of the transport plane that would take them to war. One minute, you’re smiling and laughing with your friends and family; the next, you’re sitting in troop seats flying downrange. Their actions are a silent testament to what they believe. As citizens, they’re coaches, teachers, firemen, moms and dads. When called, they put on a uniform and go to combat. They are what I like to call the engine of the world.
Somehow, the reminders of history this month give me comfort. It’s not easy to say goodbye to your family. The last two times I was at the war, I didn’t especially enjoy crawling under my bed during the mortar and rocket attacks. But I thought about my grandfather fighting house to house in a blizzard during the battle for Kesternich in January 1945, and I gained valuable perspective. There is a tether down through time that ties those who serve together. Sometimes you feel alone, crossing the pond or gritting your teeth under your bunk. It’s nice to know that there are extraordinary people in the Minnesota Air National Guard, past and present, who are on my team.
Eric Chandler, a husband, father and a pilot, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.