It’s Only a Game


Jan 12
Cobra firing rockets in Vietnam

I am old now, or so I am told. I still feel nineteen inside. I certainly don’t recall getting old. As a kid, I knew what old was. My parents were old. Their friends were old. Their parents were even older. My favorite athletes were old: Duke Snyder, Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew. They were old. Johnny Unitas and Fran Tarkenton were old too. But unlike my parents and their friends, the Duke, Mantle, Killebrew, Unitas and Tarkenton were perfect. What they did was heroic, unbelievable, and charged with the spirit of perfection.

For two bucks I could get a student ticket behind the goalposts. One Sunday I witnessed the aerial war between Unitas and Tarkenton. Sheer perfection. Each possession ended in a touchdown. Each possession exhibited an arsenal of passes, from the screen to the long bomb, hurled with surgical precision. Next we were treated to the physical perfection of their receivers, coordinating capture and forward progression into a singular gesture. Second effort pounced forth as if it were each athlete’s dying bid, as if it was his final breath that flung him forward.

Then one day, quite by accident, I found myself older than them. I watched them on television, catching passes, hitting doubles, tossing free-throws, making slap-shots and it hit me: they were just kids. Still perfect, still exhibiting their bodies’ peak performance, the pinnacle of the human form operating at its limits and sometimes, it seemed, beyond. But they were just kids.

When we were equals, I’d forgotten to take notice. It never hit me that we were the same age. It never hit me we were physical and mental equals. It never hit me that I was an athlete too, an athlete performing at my upper limits and beyond. It never hit me that I too was perfection.

The radio crackled, “Silver Spur three seven, come up 104 f(ox) m(ike). You’ve got Big Bear on the ground calling for support.”

“Roger that.”

It seems Big Bear and his platoon were pinned down on a ridge of tall grass with farmed fields lying on both sides. The tall grass ahead of them was filled with bad-guys, all dug in and tossing heavy fire at them non-stop.

“I have a tally on you, three seven,” he radioed. “You’re about two clicks east of us, heading right for us, over.”

“Roger that, let’s see some smoke, over.”

“Roger Roger.”

“I’ve got cherry, Big Bear,” I said referring to the puff of red smoke swirling out of the tall grass. “Where are the bad-guys? Over.”

“Bout twenty meters beyond the smoke.”

The mind of a quarterback is as honed and perfected as his arms and legs. He has microseconds to assess the situation and act. Soldiers too learn this; we react rather than act. Hesitation means death. Fran Tarkenton, scrambling about, looking for that open receiver, was never once bothered by the slightest inkling that if he erred, if he made just the slightest miscalculation, he’d kill a few Vikings.

I carried twenty two-pound warheads with two types of detonators. Half would blow on impact and half would explode two to twelve feet from an object or from the earth. They had a killing range of 25 meters. There wasn’t much room for error. In fact, there was no room for error. Big Bear had two wounded and the Medevac (Dustoff) couldn’t get in there while the area was hot.

I slowed my Cobra and made a few S curves to lose altitude, I wanted my rocket run to be low and slow to allow enough time to cover the entire area. At slow speeds and low angles rockets aren’t as accurate, at least for some pilots.

“Big Bear, this is Silver Spur Three-seven. We’re inbound hot. Keep your heads down. This is gonna be tight.”

“Roger that, three seven.”

Flying, shooting, killing; they’d all become second nature. To an observer, you aimed, pulled the trigger and sent off a pair of rockets. To an observer, a quarterback steps into the pocket and fires.

In reality, in slow motion, hundreds of actions and corrections, not to mention a myriad of thoughts and re-thoughts, transpire within a few short seconds. My eyes jumped to the target, then through the rocket site, to the torque gauge, left-hand adjusting, mind estimating the correct amount, determined by the angle, not steep so about 35-36 psi, then a quick focus on the turn and slip indicator, keeping the needle straight up and down is an almost unconscious act of the right hand, the ball is kept centered using both feet adjusting the pedals. Eyes dart back to the target, through the site, line her up with the stick, the cyclic, a quick last check on the turn and slip, torque’s okay, back to the target, through the site once more and squeeze.

No hushed crowd. Every pass receiver knows when the ball’s been tossed; the crowd hushes just a tad.

No hush, just the roar of the rocket engines, the trail of smoke, and wham, a black explosion against the earth, right on target. The rest are hurled out by the seat of my pants. A nudge of the cyclic to the right and squeeze, another nudge, and squeeze, another nudge and squeeze. All three pairs slamming into the center of the thick grass line, but not finished yet. They could be hiding on the other side, injured by the sound only and out of view of Big Bear and his men who are keeping low trying to become blades of grass and grains of sand. I increase the torque with a handful of collective. No time to look at the instruments; this has to be done by feel or we’re over the target and in harms way. A nudge of the cyclic to the left and squeeze. This first pair looks perfect. They will over-fly the built up grass embankment by ten or twelve feet, their explosion killing anyone hiding behind there. So another nudge to the left and squeeze, and another and another and okay, that’s as close to the cherry smoke as I want to get and I start to break.

There is no roaring throng to rise to their feet, all madly loving Nadia as her perfect “10” is broadcast in seven languages. No shouting, screaming, applauding multitudes. No distinctive voice of Howard Cosell slicing through the din of crowd, repeating, “Down goes Frazier. Down goes Frazier. Down goes Frazier.” As I lift the nose of my craft back up into the heavens, Big Bear’s voice breaks the silence, “They’re quiet now. Thanks, Buddy.”

Flying back to the base, no announcer came on to do the wrap up. No one showed the highlights. No superlatives were bandied about over the airways. There was just a short call from HQ informing us that the Dustoff had picked up the wounded without an incident. We landed, refueled, and hit the showers.

I had read The Most Dangerous Game in high school. It wasn’t on my reading list. I’d heard the story years earlier at summer camp and one night I’d discovered that it had been made into a movie, years ago in black and white. I fell asleep watching it. The next day I borrowed a copy from the library. I knew the story already. I just wanted to read it to the end. As I looked at the cover, it struck me that the title had a double meaning.

It’s the story of a man who falls off a boat and lands on an island owned by a very rich man, a hunter. This hunter had been around the world, on numerous safaris, hunting every animal possible. But there was one animal he’d never hunted: a human. He gives the stranger a knife, sends him on his way with a slight lead, and then sets out to bag his first human.

The salient meaning behind the title is found in the word game. The animal hunted is called game. When a man becomes the game, he is the most dangerous game. But the second meaning I pulled from the title came from the fact that hunting is a sport, and sports are, in the final analysis, just a game. No matter how “historical” Nolan Ryan’s seventh no hitter is considered in the annals of baseball, baseball is still just a game. Hunting humans is war, the game of war. The most dangerous game.

I’ve sat among deer hunters swilling beers and spewing forth their tales of the hunt. I’m always delighted to hear the inevitable, “There he was. I put the rifle slowly to my shoulder and I began to shake.” Being a wise ass, I usually ask at this point, “What? He pull a knife on you?”

I don’t hunt. I can’t kill a helpless animal.

So, I’m back in high school reading The Most Dangerous Game. The game is sent out with a knife and a head start. This guy, the hunter, goes after him with an arsenal of weapons and some big-ass manservant who probably also doubled as his caddy on the golf course.

The poor schlunk with the knife is the underdog. No gun, no grenades, just a knife.

The underdog wins, of course. We love to see the underdogs win. They usually don’t. But we love to see them win.

I was very lucky to graduate from flight school. Being a natural wise ass, I got into a bit of trouble and was nearly booted out. I remember my Tac Officer congratulating me, shaking my hand and telling me how glad he was that I’d made it. He added that, as far as they knew, at that moment in time I was the youngest aviator and officer in the entire armed forces. I was eighteen years old.

I volunteered for Nam. I volunteered to fly Cobras. And when I arrived there, I was the true underdog: mocked, laughed at, told I’d never amount to much, probably just get killed and sent home in a body bag. Everything I did was scrutinized in this light. Every little mistake was blamed on my youth. It sure didn’t help that time when our intercom system went out and I had to scream things back to my pilot. I’d left my foot on the radio button (which is also the intercom button, but in the heat of the moment, because we had spotted bad-guys in the open below us and we were the only ones who’d seen them, I meant to turn the radio to intercom and did the reverse) and suddenly everyone was telling me to calm down. Here all I was doing was trying to yell back to my pilot telling him where I’d spotted them and to make a quick dive so I could pick them off with the minigun in the turret, but because I ended up screaming into the open mike, well, everyone thought I was panicking and about to lose it. I never lived that one down.

I remember another underdog in Super Bowl III, the year I arrived in Nam, a famous underdog who was taking on the likes of Earl Morel and Johnny Unitas. He was called Broadway Joe. Joe Namath. I’d never liked him. He seemed like a hotdog. He was a terrible actor. He was certainly no Fran Tarkenton. But that cold day in January, 1969, Namath answered Unitas inch for inch, yard for yard, and pass for pass. Then he did the impossible: he reached deep inside and pulled out a miracle; the miracle of human perfection: technique, skill, and mind control. Joe Namath, in January of ‘69, a 12-point underdog, reached deep inside and pulled out an impossible win that wasn’t so much over Johnny Unitas and his Colts, as it was over Joe Namath. Joe had taken on Joe, and surpassed himself.

Too bad it was only a game.

“Three-seven? This is One-four. You okay?”

I really don’t remember how I answered.

“You seem to be taking a lot of lead up there, Three-seven.”

Yeah, a lot of lead. Both of us, my co-pilot and myself, were trying to figure out what that noise was. We’d never heard anything like it before. And that contrapuntal tick tick tick. It’s hard to hear anything, what with my scout talking to the ground troops and that damn engine above my head. But then the aircraft jumped a few feet in the air and we both, co-pilot and myself, figured it out. We were getting shot at. We were getting hit.

It turned out later that there were five, possibly six anti-aircraft guns on the ground. The ground troops had crossed a dirt road to the north, took a lot of fire, and fell back south of the road. They’d called us up for support but couldn’t exactly tell us what was where, only that they’d received heavy fire north of their position about 100-150 meters. What was there is often referred to as the “bowels of hell.” That evening, when it was all over, we had lost two Cobras and two pilots were badly wounded, one mortally.

When we arrived on station, ground control told us approximately where the bad-guys were. My scout, One-four, started into the area, but quickly got his butt out as he was taking fire from all directions. I dived in and tossed a few rockets into the area to draw fire off of him.

“One-four, this is Three-seven,” I called to my scout, “do you see what’s shooting at us?”

“Ahhhh, Three-seven? I’d say just about everything is shooting at you. You must have really pissed them off.”

“Well, One-four, I’m gonna come around here and get some altitude and see if we can get ourselves a target.” Today I can laugh. We were the target.

The ground commander seemed like a nice enough guy, a real chatty sort. He came over my radio, “Silver Spur Three-seven, we’ve got a tally on a fifty cal due north of this position about 150 meters, and possibly one more just north of your scout there too, over.”

As we climbed I asked One-four if he’d like to buzz over and get a better look.

“No thanks, Three-seven, it sounds like the Chinese New Year over there. I’ll climb a little bit to see what’s happening, but as long as they’re not mad at me, I’m gonna just hang out over here where they don’t seem to be aiming.”

So again my scout and the ground commander started babbling on about who’s over there and yes, another fifty cal, and no, two more it seems, and lots of smaller arms, a few thirty cals, while both myself and Ed Marzola, my co-pilot that day, stayed on the intercom asking, “Did we just get hit again?” “You see anything down there?” “Damn, what’s that tick tick tick.” “Ya think?”

Ed was our maintenance officer. He’d had more time in country than myself. Normally if we’d flown together, which wasn’t all that often, I’d be his co-pilot. But this aircraft had just recently been sighted in, one more time, I might add. I’d taken her out a few times previous to this and practiced firing her rockets. Each pair seemed to have a mind of its own. It was an old bird that had been in a few minor incidents, had a few too many holes in her, and every time Miller, the officer in charge of sighting these things in, would finish with her, we took her up to see how well she fired. Time and time again we never hit a damn thing. We were lucky to hit the ground. The rockets went everywhere except where we aimed them, but we’d had some good laughs.

This time though, we had bad-guys all over the place. Any rocket tossed at them would probably hit something. But in times like this, you don’t want to just hit something, you want to take out the big guns and make the skies a bit friendlier. Marzola bent his neck around looking for a target. I kept my eye on the site too, paying a bit of attention to the two on the radio describing the situation below. We had nearly all our rockets left and the target area was big enough that even this bird could hit it. We were sure to do some damage, but it would be nice to find a damn target to dive on to. At least we’d prove that this thing could hit something or she’d be scrapped for parts.

“One-four, this is Three-seven, we’re inbound hot one more time. You tell me if we hit anything. We can’t see a thing up here.” We’d climbed pretty high, but certainly not high enough to be out of the range of a fifty caliber anti-aircraft gun.

“Roger that, Three-seven. You’ve got at least four fifties pounding at you right now.”

That was encouraging. I figured we’d better start firing back. I picked out a spot where I’d seen a muzzle flash and aimed. Woooosh, the rockets went left. I looked at the turn and slip indicator: right on. I fired another pair. They went low. I looked at the torque: right on. I fired another pair that crossed each other left over right, and one more pair that crossed right over left. And then I saw it: bright muzzle flashes on the east end of the opening, just on the edge of the tree line. One-four and the ground commander were chatting away in my headset like some endless bad dream. They’d spotted another fifty cal. Just what I didn’t want to hear. I aimed my rockets, checked the gauges and fired. Left. Again. High. Again. Low. Again. Low but closer. Again. Closer. Again. Hit. Again. Miss. Again. Hit. We were 800 feet above the target. According to SOP, we were supposed to break. Instead I let my trigger finger go wild and rained down pair after pair after pair, then break.

As we broke we could hear the gunfire. Ed tried to lay down covering fire with the minigun, but no luck. As usual it was jammed. We were close to the ground. Close to the fire. One-four and the ground commander, sounding like they were ready to break out the tea and scones, began debating about whether we’d taken one out or not, when the ground said that one of his forward men reported back a success and One-four agreed that, yes, looks like we’d taken out a fifty cal.

“Good shooting Three-seven. You got him. That’s one less gun down there.”

As we climbed to altitude, my scout and the ground commander prattled away. I came over the radio with a much louder voice than usual. “One-four this is Three-seven. Were going down! Now!”

“Gotcha loud and clear, Three-seven” he replied.

Ed threw up his hands, “Don’t land. Don’t land,” he yelled over the intercom.

“I think we’re on fire,” I replied.

“Go down! Go down!”

There was an open field to the south of the ground troops. One-four would eventually escort them over to the site if we needed them, but for now he scouted out the field and checked in the tree line to secure it from the bad-guys. We landed. The ammo bay was on fire. Some 40 mm grenades had been sliced open, their gunpowder ignited. Marzola and I looked at each other knowingly without a word. We were damn lucky there. We checked out the rest of the aircraft. Lots of holes. Lots of holes. One of the four bolts that held our tail on was shot off. Since Ed was the maintenance officer, I hopped in the front seat and let him fly her back. I was exhausted, but I felt good.

I was alive. My enemy wasn’t as lucky. We’d played a game. A game called the first to stop shooting loses. It could have ended differently. For the Cobra that came out to relieve us, it did end quite differently. Their ship burned up in that same field we’d just left behind.

This damn ship couldn’t fire straight if it were sitting on the ground. But that day, on its last flight, it fired straight enough. It never flew again. We’d taken sixty-four hits. The crew chief was amazed. He’d never seen a cobra fly with sixty-four holes in it. She was eventually stripped and used for parts. I got a new chopper. They gave me the newest ship in the troop, with air-conditioning and powerful enough to carry a double load of rockets, with the right pilot, of course. A heavy hog, they called it.

A year earlier, underdog Joe Namath had pulled off the impossible. That day, this underdog pulled off the impossible. Joe got a Super Bowl ring. I got a Distinguished Flying Cross. Joe eventually made it into the Football Hall of Fame. Ed and I flew into the bowels of hell and out again.

Joe had reached deep inside of himself to pull out a miracle. We’d taken out an anti-aircraft gun before it could take us out, in a ship that couldn’t hit a thing a week earlier, and flew her back home with sixty-four holes in her.

I’m sure Nolan Ryan’s first no-hitter felt sweet and his second even sweeter. But I really wonder if his seventh made him feel any better than Ed and I felt as we flew back to home base. We’d done the impossible. We survived and made it back to the base, and eventually back to The World. No fanfare, no ticker tape parade. Just air to breathe and bills to pay, and oh yes, the knowledge that on that day in 1970, in a country on the other side of the globe, in a war no one will ever comprehend, two aviators reached deep inside and pulled out a miracle.

Copyright © January 2001
All Rights Reserved
David “Benny” Bonello
(Editor Wellness Journeys)