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Memorial Day

Monday is Memorial Day.  In my usual routine, I’ll be up at 5:45 with my faithful Lab-Shepard, mix “Cooper,” brew a pot of coffee and head out back for a game of fetch.  Because it is a holiday I will probably prep the smoker for a few racks of ribs – 6 hours to cook, 10 minutes to eat.  And, during all of this I will keep a thought for some people I knew. 

Lieutenant’s Tom “TC” Costen and Charlie “Tuna” Turner were A-6 Intruder pilots who were shot down during the first air strikes of Desert Storm.  Each was outstanding – both as people and as professional aviators – and I remember exchanging quick courtesies with just before we launched on similar missions that night.  

Neal “Eddie” Jones and Scott “Dinger” Waldinger were also stellar individuals, the kind of people I always looked up too.  I still remember sitting with them, and a several others, in a Lake Tahoe sports bar as we broke from a training exercise in Nevada.  Inevitably, the discussion came up as to what was next in our careers.  When queried about his desire to fly in the airlines Eddie answered succinctly “You know….  I like flying, but the F-14 will be the last airplane for me…”  If I recall, he was destined for business school.  Dinger was just having a good time and living in the moment.  All was good!  The next day we all went skiing at Heavenly Valley, with Dinger on the lift chair just in front of me.  Meeting at the top we took some ski runs together before heading our separate ways.  Shortly thereafter he and Eddie were killed when their Tomcat slammed into a Nevada mountain during a night training mission.  Their flight controls were no match for the hydraulic fire that burned through them.

John Messier, Al McLaughlin, and Pat Ardaiz were next, all victims of multiple and tragic mishaps later that same year.  Al was one of my instructors in flight school and highly respected.  John was my neighbor and drinking buddy in Pensacola and Pat was a classmate. 

Finally, there was “Bug” Roach.  Bug was nothing short of a trip.  A fighter pilot legend in his own right – the kind made for movies – rumor had it he was passed over for promotion five times, only making it the on the sixth time because all of his buddies, now Admirals, pushed him through.  It was easy to see how the legend could be started.  On most occasions he would forgo the standard issue Navy uniform in favor of a flight suit and cowboy boots – with matching cowboy hat and huge mustache.  He was also the epitome of “free spirit.”   But, when it came to flying, mentoring, or guiding young pilots aboard the back of an aircraft carrier, there was NONE better.  Despite surviving more than 250 combat missions in Vietnam and Iraq, Bug was killed in late 1991 he was unable to coax his stricken A-4 Skyhawk back to the beach in San Diego.  His last words to his wingman before he ejected were “What a lousy day. Well, I gotta get out of here. I’ll see you guys….”  Unfortunately, the parachute from his improperly rigged ejection seat never opened.  Ask any Naval Aviator of that era about “Bug,” and you WILL  get a story.

But, I will look back on these guys, not with sadness, but with respect.  The jobs they had were dangerous and they knew the risks.  Yet, they signed up and they took them anyway.  And, within their short lives was more LIFE than many will ever know – they each loved their jobs and they did them well, without question.  I think the same goes for the thousands of brave soldiers and Marines who we’ve watched in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in recent years. 

As you read this, perhaps it is the time to reflect on your own career.  Have you become Walter Mitty, stuck in a dead-end job because you’re either too comfortable or too afraid to leave it?  Perhaps you really want to start a business, but won’t because “it’s too risky in today’s economic climate.”  Or worse, perhaps you’ve looked at your dream job, and even interviewed for it.  But you won’t take it because it’s in Chicago and pulling the kids out of first grade would be WAY too traumatic on them.  Maybe you’re the guy who called me last week saying “I just called to see whatcha got, I really just want a government job.”  If this is the case, then use Memorial Day to remember what YOUR life looked like when you were full of hopes, dreams and ambitions – because your fear to chase them may very well be killing your soul.

Change is strange and nothing in life is risk-free, including indecision and stagnation. 

Instead of cooking burgers, maybe a better idea is to use the thought of Memorial Day to get unstuck, and out of your comfort zone.  Make a commitment to yourself to look for better opportunities or execute on that calculated risk you’ve been contemplating.  Or, throw caution to the wind and go “all in.”  At the end of the day you may have a lot of success, you may have some success, or you may have none at all.  But two things are certain; you never make the shot you don’t take and whatever the outcome, you will – in all likelihood – be here in a few years to talk about it.