When you’re young and still immune to plebeian concerns that have civic-minded ‘Unsafe at any Speed’ Ralph Nader followers obey the speed limit on deserted big sky country highways, you have neither the time nor the interest to chisel your road map in stone. That’s if you even have a road map. You’re up for adventure, ready to jump into uncharted territory should an opportunity present itself for which by happy coincidence you’ve acquired the most minimal skill set.
Then somewhere between your first hangover and piling the kids into the minivan a decade later you have an epiphany: True fulfillment can’t be drawn from reminiscing about the surprisingly dumb stunts you survived in your ‘what-could-possibly-go-wrong’ years, nor can it be rekindled from past barroom liaisons that still come with a face but no longer a name. Notwithstanding your parents’ fears, you’ve somehow managed to put all that behind you. You’ve come up with a dream, a vision of the most excellent adventure you’re about to embark on in the river of your imagination.
My vision for the next twenty years was to join the U.S. Air Force and see the world. And fly jets. That was my chosen river. There were no missteps in my past, no testosterone driven bad choices that could have torpedoed my dream. Francis Vogt, my aunt in Rochester, she understood – maybe better than most. Two of her sons were in the military, Bill in the Army and Bob in the Navy. When I told her about my ambitions on the way to their cottage in the Thousand Islands, she nodded with an approving smile and said “So you’re going to be a flyboy.” I hadn’t heard the term before, but yeah, Aunt Francis, I’m good with that.
Flying wasn’t a young boy’s fantasy, like wanting to become a fireman or a race car driver. Talk to most pilots and you’ll discover flying is in their DNA. You don’t remember when the bug first infected you, the exact day you found yourself looking up at every airplane flying low overhead – you just always did. And you still do, to this day.
I love cars, don’t get me wrong, but growing up in wartime Germany I never got close to any car that would have left an impression. If I did, I don’t remember. So I guess, no. For one thing, the few well-connected members of the elite who had access to a car only ventured out at night to minimize the risk of 50 cal. bullets raining down on them in the daytime. All vehicles, military and civilian, had their headlights blacked out, leaving only a tiny rectangle open in the middle. Streetlights stayed dark and window shades were drawn at dusk to shore up the odds of having your house left standing in the morning with a bed to get up from.
During the closing months of the war the German Wehrmacht ran on synthetic fuel and there wasn’t much left of that. What really inhibited any sort of addictive car craziness was that nearly all civilian vehicles had been converted to run on wood gas. Aside from making cars look hideous and needing to get a roaring fire going before you could drive them anywhere, wood gas cut in half what little horsepower those old cars had to begin with. The motivation for becoming a car guy just isn’t there when you can ‘outwalk’ any Mercedes or Opel sedan up an incline.
I did get exposed to plenty of airplanes. The sky was full of ’em, even saw a Zeppelin once and a huge 6-engine Messerschmitt 323 Gigant. Exposure wasn’t something you wished for unconditionally, but even the risk of getting bombed or strafed never diminished my passion for flying.
Late in the war I got to visit my aunt Lydia in Böblingen outside of Stuttgart. We happened to walk past a small grass airstrip when an air raid siren started to wail. Minutes later, three young pilots and their crew came running out of a concrete block building and pulled the camouflage netting off their Me-109 fighters. As we stood by the side of the road to watch the three planes take off, we were beginning to see the first streams of contrails overhead. Thousands of Allied bombers with their fighter escorts, glistening like tiny sardines with occasional flashes of sunlight glinting off polished aluminum some 20,000 feet above. Those three young airmen were rushing up to confront them. Witnessing such acts of courage and devotion to country performed not by actors on a silver screen but by ordinary people right in front of you made it easy to get drawn to aviation and find inspiration from the men and women who made history – on both sides of the conflict.
My biggest dream had been to live in America. My greatest hope after coming here was to serve as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Sadly, that wasn’t to be, a lost cause from the beginning.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. One of the lessons I had learned in Germany during the postwar years is that the world doesn’t give a damn about the storms you encountered, but did you bring in the ship! There was an Air Force Recruiting Station on State Street in downtown Rochester. Every time I stopped in, nothing had changed, the sergeant kept telling me. The regulations were still what they were two weeks ago, and two weeks before that: “To serve as a pilot in the Air Force you have to be a commissioned officer. To become that officer you must be an American citizen.”
The Naturalization Act passed by the United States Congress in 1795 mandated a waiting period of five years before ‘free white persons’ could apply for citizenship. The 14th Amendment, added to the Constitution in 1868, replaced ‘free white’ with ‘all persons’ born or naturalized in the United States. The five-year waiting period stayed on the books as is, untouched to this day.
I had barely turned twenty when I cleared Customs and Immigration at JFK. It would be another five years before I could take the oath, pledge allegiance to the flag, burn my green card, and tell the world I was a U.S. citizen. The five-year internship was an ancient law, passed for good reason, but for my chosen career inconvenient in the extreme: The age limit to enter Air Force flight training was twenty-three. How can anyone be too old for anything, save for kindergarten, at the age of twenty-five!
I returned and saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. Ecclesiastes 9:11
In hindsight, the Vietnam War wasn’t far off. Had the regulations been eased to allow enlisted personnel into fighter plane cockpits I might have served some decidedly unpleasant years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton – or worse. ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,’ wrote John Lennon in 1980, without credit to Ecclesiastes. Could it be that life itself had handed me the better future?
Now that the Air Force was a nonstarter, it was good I had devised a backup plan: Join the Army. Some people with whom I shared this plan thought it was a great idea. I thought it was a great idea. What it was not, however (and you should have seen this coming) was by anyone’s definition a good idea. It could have been, had not the Russians and Americans pointed guns at each other at checkpoint Charlie in Berlin at the most inopportune moment in time. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
First let me underscore that abandoning any hope of becoming a fighter pilot didn’t mean I was giving up on flying altogether. It was a decision I could live with, having grudgingly pushed aside Hollywood glamour in favor of cold reality: There’s no toilet in a fighter plane. Neither is there a coffee maker which you’ll have to admit shows foresight on the part of the plane’s designers taking into account the lack of facilities.
Aerial refueling often leads to long hours aloft for fighter pilots, with spent ‘piddle packs’ piling up in the cockpit. Such packs are similar in function if not in design to the empty coffee can that families with small children sometimes bring along for emergencies on long trips in the minivan.
Using a piddle pack requires sufficient time to find the opening in your boxer briefs after digging through the overlaying zippers in both your flight suit and your g-suit while being strapped tightly eight ways to the ejection seat. Not getting to ‘it’ in time ahead of a dog fight will produce predictable results that make the urgency of unzipping to be no longer so pressing afterwards. Never a slam dunk for men, the procedure is by nature even more daunting for women. Makes you wonder whether piloting a lumbering C-130 Hercules with an onboard Porta-Potty and an electric coffee maker isn’t the preferred way to go – so to speak – even in the Air Force.
Seeing we’ve jumped this far out of the box of cramped fighter jet cockpits already, wouldn’t an even better career choice be to pilot an airliner? Like the Lockheed Super Constellation that carried me across the Atlantic? All airliners have bathrooms. Score one for airliners, ‘heavies’ as air traffic controllers call them. Airliners are also equipped with coffee makers and microwaves and refrigerators – tipping points two, three and four.
Best of all, they come with flight attendants. Known as stewardesses in the fifties, their charm and beauty and stylish uniforms made air travel glamorous, until a handful of tiny pretzels and a glass of water replaced prime rib and red wine on the menu. So glamorous, in fact, you could count on half the male passengers weighing their chances for a date with – and, in their fantasy ‘house in the suburbs’ world, getting married to – an airline stewardess, often before the future Mrs. Jones had served the current Mr. Jones his first cocktail. The only reason the ratio wasn’t even more lopsided was because the male travelers in the other half were already married.
Charm and beauty and stylish uniforms are still how we envision female flight attendants. That hasn’t changed, from my generation’s perspective. And while air travel is now thought of as mass transit, we still want it to be a pleasant flight. What has changed is that jet propulsion has cut flight times to a fraction of what they used to be in the propeller age, so flight attendants have less time for pleasantries.
Maybe they’d have a little more time if they didn’t have to ask for a credit card every time we order a snack or a drink. What twisted brain came up with that idea? I can see using VISA for the booze, but how much can a few miniscule pretzels cost? And who’s going to rush the flight attendant and make off with a couple of dollars a mile high over Flatbush?
Moving on. By now, all the pros and cons about the type of airplane I wanted to fly in the military had gotten pointless. If I was still hell-bent on a flying a career, piloting a commercial ‘heavy’ would be my only option. But airlines, too, had age limits for new hires. To have any shot at flying in the commercial sector, I’d have to enroll in a private flight school – yesterday! Complicating the timing was the draft. I knew I was going to get called, just didn’t know when, and couldn’t afford to wait for the printed invitation.
The solution turned out to be simple. Here is how a co-worker who moonlighted as a captain in the Marine Corps Reserve spelled it out for me: “Enlist in the Marine Reserves. Join the unit I’m with and serve six months on active duty at Parris Island now, then six years as a local reservist. This will let you attend flight school during the week and pay for the tuition with money you earn at your Bausch & Lomb day job.” Good advice – though I decided in favor of ignoring the ‘enlist in the Marines’ part. I had just seen The D.I. at a local theater which convinced me I wasn’t jarhead material. The most logical branch would have been the Air National Guard, but the nearest station was in Niagara Falls, a two-hour drive each way from Rochester. So instead, on July 27, 1957, I reported for active duty at Fort Dix, New Jersey as the newest boot in the U.S. Army Reserve.
When I showed up at Bausch & Lomb six months later with my active duty release papers, all I asked for was my old job back. It never occurred to me to ask for a better one. The stars must have been in my favor, because the thought did occur to the employment counselor. My old job had been filled while I was away learning how to march and salute, and by law the company had to take me back at my old salary.
“Let me see what I can find for you,” the counselor said. “How much education do you have?”
“A three-year business apprenticeship, in Germany.”
“Oh, so you’re fluent in German?”
“Yes sir. And in French.”
I don’t remember how the rest went, but three things stand out. First, I had a desk job now, white collar with a tie and office Christmas parties and my very own business card. ‘Helmut Heindel,’ my card read, ‘Foreign Sales Correspondent, Export Division.’ Second, I was making more money than the $1.42 an hour I had been paid picking microscope parts. And finally, I had failed to recognize a glaringly obvious opportunity to move up in the world. My career boost was all on the employment counselor, I couldn’t take credit for any of it. Nice going, genius!
Adding business skills to my resume while still in Germany had actually been my mother’s idea. I was eager to get into flying, so I owe her for being adamant about the business apprenticeship. Ever wonder how our parents seem to get so much smarter as their kids get older? On the flip side, my mother also made me take piano lessons. Earning extra money at dances, she said, was worth looking into. Really, Ma’, with Germany in shambles and no piano to practice on?
Fortunately the teacher would only let me study the classics, so after a year I quit. Conceding that Bach and Beethoven could not be relied on to be big moneymakers at weddings, my mother went out and bought me an accordion. Very practical woman, my mother. Not only did I now have an instrument to practice on, I already knew how to play the right half of it.
This wasn’t lost on the revelers spilling out of the ‘Krone’ in Rohrbronn on the odd weekend, long past midnight, cut off at the bar but not yet partied out and now eager to break into song even if not excessively gifted that way. To my detriment, the tavern was conveniently located directly across the street from my second story bedroom window. “Hey, Helmut, come on down and play a boogie-woogie for us.” I rarely fell for it, but the few times I did, the villagers weren’t shy about letting me know in the morning they might have slept better had I stayed with Bach and Beethoven.
The photo shows village life in 1952, looking down at the main thoroughfare. The ‘Gasthaus Krone’ (Crown Tavern) is on the left. There’s an open area between the tavern and the fenced flower garden where, seven years earlier, I had encountered my first American. He was sitting atop a tank with a submachine gun in his lap, guarding the entrance to the village. Our neighbor’s house on the right dates back to 1549, the year Michelangelo turned 74.
Getting back to Rochester and my new post at Bausch & Lomb: I liked being a Foreign Sales Correspondent. It was a fun job with a touch of international allure. For one thing, the title on the business card could easily be confused with that of a Foreign News Correspondent like Edward R. Murrow. The difference became virtually indistinguishable at even the swankiest bars as the hour approached midnight. And it sounded so much better than ‘stock clerk’ for which there was, in any event, no business card.
The intrigue didn’t stop there. I remember one incident where I received a request to quote on an unusually large number of our most expensive 7×50 binoculars, the kind Bausch & Lomb supplied to the U.S. Navy. The request arrived on a postcard – from Algeria. It was my first year on the job, but I had already received enough crackpot inquiries to recognize three marbles in a can when I saw them. A postcard? No sane person would try to save a nickel on postage to initiate a sixty-eight-thousand dollar business transaction.
The card sat buried at the bottom of my in-box for the better part of a week when second thoughts began to haunt me. What if the inquiry was bona fide? What if the buyer was real and sent a follow up letter to my superiors? So I quoted – and got the order, along with an authentic, good-as-cash certified letter of credit. Later that year I was informed by our agent in Paris that I had sold the binoculars to Algerian rebels. Much later, thankfully, because it was common back then for clandestine arms suppliers to go underground. Not by melting into the crowd for a while – I’m saying underground literally, with flowers, for a long time!
Most of the correspondence in the Export Department was in English, with a fair amount of Spanish and a sprinkling of German and French. No Italian or Greek or Portuguese. With 6,909 languages in use throughout the world, we had to draw the line somewhere. Overseas calls were rare due to cost. Nearly all communication was via airmail typed on manual typewriters. The electric kind had yet to come into widespread use, and fax and email hadn’t been invented yet.
Letters were logged and stored in folders in the ‘General Files’ department down the hall from the Export offices. Ann Singles, the department head, knew of my involvement with motorcycle racing back in Germany. Her son competed in local rallies with an Austin Healey 3000. He had recently lost his navigator, and would I be interested? The following weekend I had my second ride in a sports car. For the next two years I split my free time between learning how to fly at the Hylan School of Aeronautics in Henrietta, NY and navigating in the big Healey. I liked the car so much that a few years later I bought the metallic ice blue MK II 3000 BJ7 (2+2) you see in the photo.
Josefina Aquino had come to Rochester as an exchange student around the time I arrived as an immigrant. A graduate of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila with a degree in pharmacy, she was studying clinical technology at St. Mary’s Hospital. We were introduced by a mutual friend, hit it off, and got married in the spring of 1960. Effie was fun loving and full of live and a born entrepreneur. And Lord could she dance! You’ve heard of ‘Bollywood’ (a blend of Bo·mbay and Ho·llywood)? Manila had ‘Cinema of the Philippines,’ as vibrant a movie industry as you’d have found in India. Effie was their ‘Mambo Queen,’ with a stack of movie posters to her credit.
With each passing year, free time was harder to come by. If I was serious about pursuing my dream of a flying career, shouldn’t I have devoted every spare minute to flight training? Probably, and borrowed the money. But I’m at peace with it, knowing that in the end it wouldn’t have made any difference. The Cold War saw to that.
Remember how I said joining the Army was a great idea, though in hindsight not even remotely a good idea? Blame the Berlin Crisis. The event and what led up to it is well documented, so I’ll keep it brief. The United States, Russia, France, and United Kingdom had agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference that Allied personnel could move freely in any sector of the city they jointly governed. In 1961 the Russians reneged. On October 22nd, the American Chief of Mission in West Berlin was prevented from going to a theater in East Berlin. The car had occupation forces license plates. Former Army General Lucius D. Clay, President Kennedy’s Special Advisor in West Berlin, decided to demonstrate American resolve. The upshot was that American and Russian tanks loaded with live munitions were staring each other down a hundred yards apart at Checkpoint Charlie on the Friedrichstraße.
You had to be there to appreciate the American moxie. As one of the first to spot the Russian tanks when they arrived, First Lieutenant Vern Pike was ordered to find out whether they really were Soviet tanks. The Russians had overpainted all identifying markings and dressed the tank crews in black so they could claim “nyet, no was ruski – was local volunteers” should the confrontation lead to war, a tactic they would repeat fifty-three years later when they annexed Crimea. Pike, whose military police platoon managed Checkpoint Charlie, jumped into an Army sedan with his driver Sam McCart. They threaded their way around the barricades and past the Soviet tanks into East Berlin.
Walking back to the tanks from the side street where they had parked their sedan, Vern found the crews sitting on the ground nearby, attending what looked to be a mission briefing. Brushing aside the risk that one or two soldiers could still be inside the tanks – and of a lowly First Lieutenant triggering World War Three – Pike climbed into one of the T-54s. He came out waving a Red Army newspaper. Said a stunned Colonel Sabolyk when Pike showed him the evidence, “You did what?”
I would have liked to have been there, actually, as boneheaded as that may sound. When President Kennedy called up the reserves in response to the brouhaha in Berlin, I expected to be sent back to Germany, playing a big shot American Forces GI. Instead, my orders were to report to Fort Hood, Texas. TEXAS! Recall that the crisis was playing out in Berlin and I was fluent in German. The army evidently needed me in Texas or they wouldn’t have sent me there. To be fair, the brass might have known something I didn’t. With apologies to George Gobel (Lonesome George, from the Johnny Carson days), not a single Russian tank made it past Dallas while I was protecting Texas.
The 457th Ordnance Company to which I was attached was a reserve outfit from New York City. Officially designated a ‘Collection and Classification’ unit, the company ran the military equivalent of a junkyard. Our mission was to collect and classify what was left and still usable of crashed military vehicles (jeeps and trucks mostly – tanks and self-propelled howitzers do very well in collisions when not colliding with each other). Before the reserve call-up, the army had two such units worldwide, one in Korea and one in Texas. They now had two in Texas, both at Fort Hood. Go figure!
I have no idea why the army thought they needed an Army Reserve military junkyard in Manhattan in the first place. Nobody in New York City drives or even bothers to get a driver’s license because parking’s a joke. Residents take the subway or flag down a cab. How were they going to haul away a defunct M35 Deuce and a Half on Fifth Avenue when nobody in the company knew how to work a clutch? Call a tow truck? The 457th had four open slots to fill, which they remedied by requesting ‘Fillers’ such as myself from reserve units upstate. A filler’s job was not to collect and classify, we found out. It was to teach all the other grunts in the outfit how to drive.
Those lessons would be over and done with in a month and I couldn’t see myself picking up cigarette butts every day for the eleven months following. When I asked the company commander to assign me to Post Ordnance, I was sure he would grant it. In peacetime there weren’t many vehicles to be hauled away to the junkyard. None during my entire assignment. The captain’s biggest headache was to find work for the four idle platoons under his command.
Post Ordnance was staffed almost exclusively by civilians. I had scored an eight-to-five job for the remainder of my tour, repairing tanks, self propelled howitzers, and armored personnel carriers for the First and Second Armored Divisions. The most fun part of the job, aside from learning new skills by working alongside the civilian mechanics, was road testing M48 battle tanks after I had earned my license. The rules of the road are different for tanks, noticeably so: There aren’t any. No rules. I never once got a one-finger salute for inconveniencing traffic. Regardless of which way the gun is pointed or whether the oncoming driver is a private or a general, when people see a tank coming at them they move out of the way.
Not surprisingly, President Kennedy’s decision to ask Congress for authority to call up the reserves had definitively trashed any remaining hope I might have had for a flying career. By the time I got out of the army for good I was too old even for the airlines.
To be honest, so be it. Was I disappointed? Of course, who wouldn’t be. For a long time I kept wondering ‘what if’! But I cried no tears. My career at Bausch & Lomb was gaining momentum and saw me move up from Foreign Sales Correspondent to Product Manager, then to Sales Manager, and finally to International Marketing Manager – all within a decade, offering limitless travel around the world. At one point, I ran out of pages in my passport and had to have extension sheets glued in. Life was good, really good. Besides, I kept convincing myself, aren’t airline pilots just glorified bus drivers? No offense, guys, I still look up whenever one of you passes low overhead; and I still find myself watching John Wayne in ‘The High and the Mighty’ around Christmas for the umpteenth time.
Ironically, I did get to fly in the military. Not in the Air Force as I had hoped to, but in the Army Flying Club at Fort Hood, Texas. Granted, an aging Piper PA-18 Cub with duct tape on a side window is a far cry from an F/A-18 Hornet. But until somebody hands me a crystal ball with a window into tomorrow, I’ll be happy with what I can get today. To paraphrase a 1970 Steven Stills tune: “If you can’t get what you love, love what you can get.”
One final note before I close this chapter: After fifteen years of marriage, Effie, my always active and upbeat best friend and mother of our son Raymond succumbed to illness in the prime of her life. Bad things happen, often untimely. Pilots who have been flying for a while know success isn’t measured by how closely they follow their flight plan but by how well they manage the unexpected. They live and breathe the golden rule: Never stop flying the airplane. All else is secondary. Nothing good will come from letting yourself fall out of the sky.
Copyright 2016 Helmut Heindel