Poem of the Month for December 2020

This is the poem of the month.

The Poem of the Month is “Bail Out,” by Ben Swett. At the time that he wrote this poem, in the early 1960s, Ben was a Captain in the United States Air Force, assigned to the 830th Bomb Squadron, a unit in the Strategic Air Command, at Pease Air Force Base, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was a navigator in B-47s. I like this poem for its technical accuracy and for the way the final stanza takes the poem in a new and unexpected direction. The term “bail out” means escaping from an aircraft no longer capable of flight.

Bail Out
by Ben Swett

She rode the heavens like a gull
On flashing silver wing;
With bones of steel and nerves of wire,
Hydraulic blood and heart of fire;
A lovely, flying thing.

As close as hands, or feet, or breath,
We leaped up towards the sun;
I was her master and her brain,
A human soul: a living plane;
We were not two, but one.

Then suddenly, disaster struck;
We towed a flaming trail.
While in my hand the stick went slack,
She flipped herself upon her back,
And fell like gun-shot quail.

I did not want to leave this home,
But knew it must soon die.
I took in a breath, tucked in my feet;
Then squeezed the grips that fire the seat,
And shot out toward the sky.

I swung beneath white shining silk;
My plane hit far below;
Returned its metals to the earth
That gave my human body birth,
And this one thing I know . . .

I ride my body, like the plane;
I love it well, and yet
When it breaks down beyond all doubt,
Then I, myself, will bail out,
And watch without regret.

Poem of the Month–November

For this month’s poem, I have found something shorter than last month’s poem. This month’s poem is by Robert Graves, who fought in World War I. The poem is not about war, but it is about my favorite topic–flying. The title is “Flying Crooked,” and it dates from 1938.

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, the cabbage white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has — who knows so well as I? —
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Poem of the Month: October

This month’s poem is from Inverted Flight: A Collection of Verse, by Don Mercer (Call sign “Rustic 41”), published in 2004.  Mercer flew the Cessna O-2A, a twin-engine (one engine in front, one engine in back) low altitude spotter aircraft, near Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, in 1970-1971.  This poem relates an unusual experience he had while flying over the Cambodian border west of Saigon. 

This 18-stanza poem is much longer than any I have previously posted.  Even though it is not precisely crafted, I like it for the true-to-life picture it gives of one specific instance of flying activities that occurred in South Vietnam during the unfortunate Vietnam conflict. 

A ballad, it represents the true ballad impulse, the effort to capture in verse a real-life event whose significance the writer conveys to the reader. 

True ballads are not normally short poems, because they tell meaningful stories about the actions of the central character, and require time (and several stanzas) to fully establish the context for the reader to appreciate the significance of the actions described. 

A Loach was a small, agile Army helicopter used in Vietnam in the later years of the conflict. 

“Lunch, Anyone?” 

One bright sunny day, as I worked across the fence,

Working with an Army pink team, o’er the jungle, oh so dense,

A command and control chopper—“C&C”—flying up above,

A Cobra gunship at the ready—for the enemy, had no love. 

And down below at treetop height was a chopper with a bubble;

A young Army warrant officer, hanging it out, looking for trouble. 

The “pink team” was a combination of the choppers working like glue,

Zigging and zagging every which way, using tactics that proved so true. 

The warrant officer in the OH-6, or Loach, as it was called,

Would hover over jungle canopy, seeking the enemy to scald. 

He’d part the tops of trees, with blasts of downward air

From the Loach’s blades above, while showing little care.

For himself he was to all, little more than bait

As the rest of us stood at the ready, not much to do but wait. 

The Loach would dart here and there, seeking bunkers to attack;

Which, when he found, the Cobra’d roll in, firing rockets off his rack. 

And if the enemy showed himself, then I was there to call

Fighter bombers to launch air strikes, leaving thick black smoke—a pall.

But as the Loach moved in and out of the jungle treetops there

I sensed he had then on his mind something else for which he cared. 

And sure enough, when the chopper crossed a tree line just below,

He saw a hooch, a nice wide yard, and settled down just so;

The C&C ship called to see just what the young man then had found;

But no answer for us up above, as he prepared to exit on the ground. 

I dropped in lower to the west, the Cobra gunship to the east;

It took not long to figure out, now on his mind he had a feast. 

For out of the Loach he darted, with the engine on but low;

The chopper blades turning slowly now, just waiting but to go. 

The young man, like so many, most likely less than twenty years;

Ran across the yard and true to form, certainly showed no fear. 

That’s when I saw what he was after, his target of the day;

A scrawny thing they called a chicken, as it headed for the hay. 

It ran and ran, yet faster, the young man closing on his tail behind;

As we above could only laugh, thinking he must have lost his mind. 

The chicken ran into a corner, his end not too far now;

The young man then ran around what appeared to be a cow. 

A water buffalo, it turned out, was just grazing all the while;

As those of us flying overhead, all we could do was smile. 

The young warrior approached the chicken, his enemy soon to pay;

He had it cornered now, moved in, while keeping the water buffalo at bay. 

I saw him reach for the chicken, wings moving as it attempted to fly;

The young man lunged and grabbed its legs, holding the quarry up so high. 

He’d had his fun, chasing o’er the farm his paltry little lunch;

It demonstrated once again, how wild those warrant officers were,

                                                            A courageous, fearless bunch! 

In all my days of flying there, I saw nothing quite the like;

Of a young man landing behind the enemy’s lines, as if but on a hike. 

From a hundred feet above I saw he had his lunch, just like food fast,

But I couldn’t help but wonder if it might not be his last. 

As he made his way back to the Loach, the Cobra rolled in hot;

‘Cause just a few hundred meters away, he saw movement:

                                                            Fortunately not a lot. 

And as I pulled off to the west, the Loach pulled up rather a bit abrupt;

The Cobra fired into that green stage, as if only to disrupt. 

The young man’s chase for lunch that day nicely ended with success;

Having flown a few missions beside these men, I’d come to expect no less. 

The Loach pulled up and flew by me, the young fellow with his prize,

Strung from the canopy top, fluttering wildly; I could only laugh so at its size. 

For the chicken was but a mouthful, looked like feathers more than meat;

But I could see the glee, and heard the radio blaring of his feat;

While some may think this story foolish, there’s a lesson to throw out;

When we seek men who are fearless, you need only look for those scouts. 

For those who piloted the Loaches were to all a breed apart;

Seeking bunker complexes, enemy caches, they were always quick to dart. 

Just like a little hummingbird, from tree to tree they flew,

They hunted the enemy and did their job with bravery and spirit too. 

Those men so young of yesteryear—they were an emboldened lot;

They knew no fright, would hover, appearing invincible to gunshot. 

They were a different class of men, Americans all, but more:

Incapable of being rattled while hugging that jungle floor. 

It’s hard to look back now, and give it just perspective;

For many did their jobs too well, and for that, their lives did give. 

So we can live a life of ease, enjoy liberty and freedom dear;

Paid for by these young men back then, who showed never any fear. 

Book Notes

Norty and Suzie Schwartz, Journey

I don’t normally read the autobiographies of recently retired generals.  For one reason, there are a lot of these books, and they all give the reader an authoritative view from the top, which can be a little wearing.  I’m not complaining; I know these men (and women) have important lessons they want to pass along, lessons they learned coming up through the ranks, and the longer they wait to publish their memoirs, the less relevant their lessons will be.  But generals don’t get to be generals without behaving and talking like generals.  Usually these books have more “lessons to be learned” than I am interested in reading about, especially as I am well past the age of applying any of these lessons to my immediate circumstances. 

However, for a number of reasons, I have been reading Journey, General Norton “Norty” Schwartz’ account of his Air Force career, which culminated with his assignment as Air Force Chief of Staff; he retired in 2012 (Journey: Memoirs of an Air Force Chief of Staff, by General (Retired) “Norty” Schwartz, published by Skyhorse Publishing in 2018).  I think that this book is one of the most unusual senior officer memoirs ever to appear in print.  Or maybe I should say that the book is unusual because Norty Schwartz was an unlikely candidate to become an Air Force Chief of Staff, for several reasons: 

He came from a family with little previous affiliation with the military services.

He was Jewish.

His wife was a non-conformist service wife, who insisted on following her career rather than (or at least as much as) his.

Although he was a rated pilot, he came from the airlift community, not the fighter-bomber community.  Specifically, he was a C-130 pilot.  Typically, AF Chiefs of Staff are selected from the fighter-bomber community. 

That last reason is the primary reason I decided to read the book.  (Because, if you are on this web site, you must know I was a C-130 pilot, too.) 

I have often thought that the “fighter pilot mentality” was a detriment, not an asset, for leadership at the top levels of the Air Force.  The fighter pilot mentality can create an outlook in an individual that places undue emphasis on the performance of the individual rather than the ability of the individual to rely on a team to marshal the necessary resources to solve a problem.  If a line C-130 pilot learns anything when flying, he or she realizes that a successful mission depends on the contributions of all members of the crew.  An AF Chief of Staff has to have that kind of mentality. 

The primary reason I read Journey was to discover what Norty’s C-130 flying experiences were.  He had a lot of C-130 experience, flying in Vietnam just as the roof fell in on the South Vietnam government in 1975, seven years after my last flight in Vietnam.  After he returned from Vietnam, he became involved in flying the C-130 in the Special Operations area.  He entered the Special Operations area at an opportune time, because the US military was then starting to rely more on smaller Special Operations actions than on mass maneuvers of troops.  For the most part, it still is.  His accounts of some of the Special Operations activities in which he was involved, first as a junior officer, and then as a more senior officer, are interesting and occasionally scary, as when someone came up with the hare-brained idea of tying really big rockets onto a C-130 in order to seriously reduce its take-off roll.  Officially this program was eliminated because of cost, but the minute I first read of this scheme, I shook my head in disbelief.  No way would that plan work! But desperate situations seemed to call for desperate steps.

The other unusual aspect of his book is the inclusion of the comments of his wife, Suzie; her comments are shown in italics and give a complementary and occasionally different view of their life together than he does.  At first her comments were distracting; and then I found them appealing.  What other senior officers have ever included the spouse as a part of their published conversation?  And that is what it is at times—a conversation between the two of them, sometimes heated, but in a good-natured way. 

Although Norty provides his share of military leadership comments, which any general officer memoir is obligated to provide, they do not seriously detract from the more interesting aspects of the book.  After all, Norty served in the Air Force for forty years.  Forty years in the Air Force!  My god, how is that possible?  (Actually, as he explains, he was about to retire when a leadership problem resulted in his selection as AF Chief of Staff.)   Lots of good reasons to read this book! 

Poem of the Month–September

I’m posting this a little late. 

This is one of my favorites.  It’s from the World War II era, a Royal Air Force flying crew’s lament about flying long patrols over the ocean in bad weather in search of German submarines.  I found it in The War in the Air: The Royal Air Force in World War II, a wonderful collection of narratives (and a few poems) edited by Gavin Lyall.  The author is unknown. 

We had been flying all day long at a hundred effing feet,

The weather effing awful, effing rain and effing sleet. 

The compass it was swinging effing South and effing North   

But we made an effing landfall at the Firth of effing Forth. 

Chorus:  Ain’t the Air Force effing awful?

              Ain’t the Air Force effing awful? 

              We made an effing landfall at the Firth of effing Forth. 

We joined the effing Air Force ‘cause we thought it effing right,

But don’t care if we effing fly or if we effing fight. 

But what we do object to are those effing Ops Room twats

Who sit there sewing stripes on at the rate of effing knots. 

The sentiment of this poem will be appreciated by anyone who flew in challenging weather conditions in combat while the men who scheduled the missions sat safe in comfortable conditions receiving promotions for doing less hazardous work.