It was a treat this morning when the phone rang and it was my flying buddy and good friend of more than four decades on the line. I think of him often as he has “been there” as an actively-engaged buddy and great friend all of these years.
Meeting on March 26, 1979, I was a young pilot just 24 years old. It was the first day of New Hire Pilot Training at the Western Airlines Training Center in Los Angeles.
Our backgrounds were as different as night and day. He, an F4 Phantom Fighter Pilot decorated with two Distinguished Flying Cross medals, had risked his life while contributing more than two hundred combat missions to our country’s freedom. Me? I had flown Civilian aircraft with no particular threat to my life while making no exceptional, particular contribution to others. Back then, I was a skinny kid of 170 pounds dressed in an inexpensive polyester suit that didn’t fit quite right.
After seven years of hard work and excited as I was being hired on with a major airline, I took a seat upfront of the classroom so I could take in all that was to be learned. It was important I sit upfront because missing anything just wasn’t acceptable. Having worked so long and so very hard to become qualified for this monumental first day, I certainly did not want to “wash-out” in training.
Into the classroom walked this guy, a mature fellow 34 years of age, wearing an expensive herringbone jacket and wool slacks, his hair jelled-back, with a swagger that would make John Wayne proud. He walked right up to me and said straight-away, “get the hell out of my chair.”
Shocked, I replied back stupidly, “huh?”, while I assessed whether I could whup him or not. Fortunately for me, I controlled any ill response. It would not have been a good thing to get fired the first day on the job!
No more had my mind processed these thoughts than a big smile came across his face as he said, “just pulling your chain, Mike. For seniority purposes, the oldest guys traditionally line up in front and the youngest sit in the back of the room. I’m Don.” That was the exact moment our friendship began and one that has lasted 41 years.
Don was later selected from his peers to become an FAA Designated Line Check Pilot and eventually Chief Pilot of what is now one of the world’s largest Airlines. Throughout his many years at the airline, he continued to give to his country as an Air National Guard pilot. Interestingly, one of his friends in the Guard was the celebrity Dean Martin Jr., a fellow squadron pilot who, tragically, perished during his service.
Throughout the years and usually over cool drinks, details of his military service to our country came out but just a little bit at a time. Stories including the loss of a fellow pilot who was his room-mate, other buddies that were lost, more details of the job he did to protect our way of life, our freedom, and our country, were shared.
I, personally, am grateful for the many timely suggestions he has contributed to me and my family, the little “bumps and nudges” he shared that went above and beyond what one might expect from another human being. Like a brother, Don has always been there “having my back,” and with others’ interests at heart too.
What is it about this guy that makes him stand a full two feet taller than all others? I believe it to be selfless sharing and a willingness to contribute to others. He actually cares and is always ready with a helping hand to his Country, his family, and his friends.
“Tag you’re it,” said this war hero of our country and my good friend as we were about to hang up. It means simply that it is my turn to call next, but darn, I forgot to say, “thank you for your service, Happy Memorial Day, and thank you for your valued friendship.”
I had to call him back, and in concluding a second conversation, I got to say, “tag, you’re it!”
May we be grateful on this Memorial Day, with much appreciation and gratitude to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to others.
You are the real deal.