Monday, January 31, 2011

How my dad won the Coast Guard Medal

My latest novel, The White Face Bear, is semi autobiographical. The majority of it is of course fiction, but the main character is more like me than any other fictional character I've ever written. The prelude to the TWFB is a very accurate portrayal of one of the three bear hunts my dad went on (if you take out the mystical pieces of course). Finally, the journey Jeff Bennett takes to Kodiak, Alaska to spread his father's ashes mirrored my journey in 2008, two months after my father died.

The story that I couldn't tell in the book without an awkward data dump, is the story of how my father won the Coast Guard Medal while serving at Air Station Kodiak. The Coast Guard Medal is the highest award a Coasty can receive for acts of heroism in peacetime. It's a story worth telling, and I want to share it here.
It was a pretty standard November day on Kodiak, which meant no one had seen the sun in weeks and the usual misting rain was mixed with snow. It was early in the morning, and the temp was a wet 30 degrees.

Dick was an Aviation Electrician's Mate, 2nd class. His job was to keep all the birds working. Many times over the years, he discussed the difference between the brown shoes, or Airdales as he called them, and the black shoe Coasties that scuttled around on their boats like crabs. Air Station Kodiak - Rescue had a few fixed wing craft in 1967, but most of what they had was helicopters. Specifically, the Sikorsky HH-52A Sea Guard. By today's standards, it looks odd, and one wonders if it can even get its big ass up in the sky, but in 1967, it was the shit.

He was a fair pilot that could drive anything with wings or rotors, but he mostly flew test flights of the aircraft he fixed and not as pilot in charge during actual rescues. One of the best helicopter drivers was Dick's best friend and hunting partner, Grant. When a call came in about a couple of men that had been lost in the mountains for three days, Grant was driving. The crew complement was three, in this case it was Grant and a corpsman, so Dick decided to go along as the third to help search and to work the winch.

Searching for hunters, or in this case poachers, up in the mountains was rigorous work that rarely yielded a positive result. The sad fact was that in those days they had to rely on nothing but their eyes, and there was a whole lot of ground to cover. The odds of them finding anything was minimal, but Dick's eyes were better than most and he would rather ride on a call than sit back at base.

Up they went, on the hunt as they had many times before and began their search with the most likely hunting grounds for mountain goat. Dick and Grant had hunted everything worth shooting in Alaska and knew where many of the best spots were. The Sea Guard cruised at 85 miles per hour and had a maximum range of 474 miles. Up they went and the search began. After a few hours, they had to refuel, and then out again for another look. By that time, a storm had moved in and the winds were picking up. Grant took her in as close to the peaks as he could and Dick searched for a flash of color, or a straight line that had no business being in nature.

They were low on fuel and had run out of places to look. The two men were surely lost. Their bodies might turn up in the summer, or they may never be found. Maybe they weren't missing at all, maybe they had just got tired of the dreary weather and their dreary wives and decided to head for the mainland. Dick knew people who felt that way, his wife being at the top of the list. For him, though life was what happened while you were waiting for the next hunting season to open, and there was no better place on God's little green earth than Alaska for that.

Grant banked the beast toward home when Dick saw a flash of color. He blinked, rubbed at his eyes and looked back where he'd seen the flash. Nothing, just more snow, now beginning to swirl in the storms gust, and then he saw it. This time he called out for Grant to bring her around for a closer look. Grant nodded, as he saw it too and both men assessed the situation. It wasn't good. They were almost bingo fuel, and if they went back for more, it would be two more hours and past dark before they got back. The two figures looked frozen in place, as hard as the rock and ice that seemed to encase them. It was doubtful at this altitude and temperature that either was alive, but if there was even a chance, they couldn't delay two hours.

The men had somehow shimmied their way along a ledge no more than a few feet wide that suddenly ended. The cliff face rose up eighty feet to another ledge that was cut back into the mountain a mere fifty feet. The wind was gusting toward the mountain, which meant Grant would have to hold the chopper in a steady hover, with his blades a few feet above and next to a mountain, with 60 mile per hour gusts buffeting them from behind, while the corpsman lowered the basket eighty feet to a two foot ledge below.

Grant smiled and moved the Sikorsky into position. He was one of the best to ever hold a stick and he knew it. Dick went back to work the winch that would lower the corpsman. The man made no move toward the door, his eyes frantic. Grant ordered the corpsman in the basket, but the man refused. Dick lost his temper and yelled at the man and when he refused to move, threatened to chuck him out of the helicopter.

Time was running out and Dick grabbed the corpsman, shook him and told him he would go down but that the corpsman had to work the winch. He responded, like a condemned man after hearing the governor's call. Dick went down into the storm on a wire basket held by a cable that looked too damned thin to hold one man, let alone two. He hated heights. In a plane or helicopter, he felt in control and gloried at the feeling of riding the wind. It was a lot different swinging underneath one and bouncing against ice covered rock.

He got level with the outcropping and got a close look at the two men. Both of their eyes were closed and they looked dead. The wind eased up for a second and Dick stepped across to the ledge. One man was able to move, but the other was literally frozen in place and he had to pry the second man loose, frustrated at the lack of leverage the iced surface allowed. He managed to help the first man in the basket. The corpsman lowered the winch, and Dick repeated the process, though the second man didn't show the signs of life the first had. Dick feared the second man was dead, but he strapped the poacher in place and as he signaled for the basket to be raised, the man's eyes popped open.

The basket went up for the second time, and Grant eased the helicopter away from the overhang as it rose to prevent it from slamming against the rock like it had the first time. Dick was watching the progress when the chunk of ice he was standing on broke loose. He fell and later couldn’t remember what happened. Grant was watching and saw Dick's hand lash out and catch something solid. The momentum of his body swung him up and back onto the thin ledge a few feet down. Adrenaline screamed through his veins and he had to force himself to take long deep breaths to steady himself. After a few minutes, he spared a glance down and saw one of the poacher's rifles, frozen in place, its barrel hanging out less than a foot over the edge.

Then the basket was there and he was riding it back to safety. Once inside, Grant wasted no time heading back to base. Dick didn’t want to look at the fuel gauge, but he did. The needle was pegged with five miles left to go and he remembered the expression, 'running on oxygen and imagination'. He hoped their imaginations would hold out. Grant brought it in with his usual light touch, as if he had just been out on a leisurely check ride on a sunny summer day. He'd called ahead to the hospital, and the medical team was waiting with two gurneys.

Dick still had an urge to strangle the shit out of the corpsman, but the man had worked hard on the two victims the whole way back and was clearly capable as a medical practitioner. Dick focused on the checklist for the post flight operations instead. Once they were done, they set foot back on the ground. Grant stopped gripped his shoulder, smiled and nodded. It was enough.

Both of the poachers lived, though each lost a few pieces and parts to frostbite. Dick and Grant got more drunk than usual and life went on. A few months later, word came down that Dick had been awarded the Coast Guard Medal for his part. That was as good a reason as any to get drunk that day, but this time they decided to take a little trip to the base commander's house. It seems the old man was having a party and forgot to invite the hero and his driver, so Dick and Grant decided to crash it.

Wind from the rotors raised holy hell on the picnic, and it was no surprise to the men that the commander refused to put steaks beer in the basket. Neither man was written up, but neither did they reenlist.