Other than stories of being hot and chafed during his entire deployment, my father never talked much about being in Vietnam.
That all changed when we drove to Charlotte in 1988 to visit his mother. Just as we crossed the Florida-Georgia state line, he vented 20 years of pent-up memories.
My father was a navigator in the U.S. Air Force. His nickname was “Budda.” The pilot was Don Martin, a.k.a. “Jug.” Their C-130 also had “Kiki” and “Hiltchy” on board. They were known as the Stray Goose.
He flew missions at night. Twenty years after he got home, I finally understood why his plane was painted black. Their missions usually involved flying over the South China Sea, making a left-hand turn into North Vietnam, completing their mission, and returning to base from the sea again.
“When you’re out over the water, they can’t shoot you from the ground,” he said.
He talked about Hilchy, the engineer, announcing the enemy was attempting to get a fix on their airplane to fire a surface-to-air missile.
He said when Hilchy would say ‘SAM fix … SAM fire, they got ready. Jug turned the plane into the rocket’s path and, at the last minute, banked it hard right or hard left. The SAM rocket couldn’t adjust its path that quickly, so it missed. He said there were times when Jug rocked the so hard rivets popped out. That meant they got to go to Cam Rahn Bay for repairs – and enjoy the only ice cream machine in Southeast Asia.
The story terrified me. I never realized how close he was to not coming home. When I asked how many times that happened, his answer scared me even more.
“Two or three times a week,” he said.
That may account for his Distinguished Flying Cross.
He also told me of one of their squadron parties where they ran out of fruit and wound up drinking green bean daiquiris. Guys who dodged missiles weren’t afraid to be daring.
I think about those stories every Father’s Day. Maj. Donald D. Coble was my hero. He died in 2006 after suffering a stroke. However, the lessons he taught me inspired me to be a better father.
I became a single father in 1991, and with it came the responsibility of rearing a 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.
Did you know the buttons are backward on a girl’s shirt compared to a boy’s? I do know. Do you also know little girls become young women at that age? You learn to trust salespeople at department stores when she has questions about underwear.
Being a father is one of the hardest jobs I ever had. And it’s the most rewarding.
I know how my father felt. He was at every football game I played. He read every story I ever wrote. He even called me while watching an Orlando Magic game to tell me what happened – although I was sitting courtside, covering the game for the newspaper.
He was a babysitter, loan officer, golf buddy, and, most importantly, my best friend. He listened when my marriage ended. He caught me the first time I came home in high school after I had been drinking. (He made me get up at 6 a.m. the next morning and made me wash all three cars). He was the guy who made sure everyone had nice Christmas gifts. When my little brother died, he embraced his three grandchildren to ensure they were loved and appreciated. I think that’s why my two nephews also wound up going into the military. So did my son.
He taught me to deal with my problems and not run from them, just like he did when he heard “SAM fire.” He believed in results, even if they were terrible. And he didn’t accept excuses. You learn from mistakes more than successes.
Like everyone else, my life has been filled with mistakes, successes, happiness and sadness. But there are no regrets. My father taught me better.