“We’re still twelve nautical miles out,” said the pilot, adding, “Besides with all that cloud cover, your probably couldn’t see a thing.”
The pilot was looking out the left side of the plane as spoke. So I looked too, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mountain turned volcano that hat been in the news for the past 30 days.
“Its ashame,” told myself.
The day had started early. I was up long before the sun, finishing the packing of my B-4 bag.
I hardly slept that night as I was getting ready to go on emergency leave.
Remembering back, I thought about the telephone call – the one where Dad said he had cancer and that he and Mom were separated and getting a divorce. It still left me sick to my stomach to think about these two things.
“Yeah, I’ve been sleeping in your old room,” Dad had told me.
“How long had that been going on?” I recalled thinking.
After driving through the base gates, I met Deanna at her home. She had a single bag to load jus’ like I did.
“Are you excited to be going home?” I asked.
“You bet,” she answered, “I hardly slept a wink last night.”
“Me either,” I returned.
We both laughed as I lifted her B-4 bag into the back of my Datsun station wagon. After climbing in behind the steering wheel, I started to pull away for the curb.
“Hold on!” Deanna suddenly said.
Stepping on the brakes, she jumped out of the car and disappeared through the front door of her home. In less than a minute, she was back in the car.
She smiled at me and said, “I thought I forgot to turn the stove off.”
“Oh,” was all I replied.
Within minutes we were at the airport, jus’ outside of Cheyenne. We quickly parked and grabbed our respective bags and rushed to report to the flight office. From there we were escorted to an awaiting C-130 Hercules.
“Ever been in one of these things?” I asked Deanna.
“No,” she answered.
“Good morning,” a voice from inside the aircraft said. It was the flight engineer, a Master Sergeant.
He point to the area where we would be sitting as he secured our luggage. I knew all to well that the red cargo net seating would not be all that comfortable during the long flight ahead.
“We won’t be getting into McChord until late,” the Master Sergeant said. Then he added, “We have to go to Luke first to drop off a Red Horse team then Mountain Home.”
At that moment the members of the U.S. Army’s crack engineering unit appeared. Each arrived with a green backpack and in formation. Again the flight engineer played host, welcoming them aboard the plane and securing their gear.
The last to be loaded was a mini-bulldozer. It was obvious at that point to me that the flight engineer was also a payload master as he carefully and precisely directed then secured the heavy machine in the planes hold.
After we had taken off and the nose of the aircraft was pointed in a southerly direction, I decided to get up and go into the cockpit. I told Deanna what I was doing and invited her along, as I got up and walked the few steps to the small ladder leading to the flight deck.
“No, thanks,” she replied.
“Howdy, Doc!” came a friendly voice.
It was a Major, who had jus’ been to my office and who had jus’ completed a flight physical. He offered me a hand and we shook.
Soon we landed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. That’s where the Red Horse team was off loaded onto a tarmac that was already unbearably hot.
Next we winged our way in a northerly direction, heading towards, Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho. The weather was much cooler there and the wait was much longer.
The passenger list also increased by one as an Airman boarded the Washington bound plane. He introduced himself to me and then Deanna. The pair immediately hit it off as they started talking right away.
“I feel lucky getting this hop,” he told Deanna, “I jus’ spent the last 24-hours stuck in the terminal.”
Minutes later we were airborne.
“Hey, Doc, come forward, the Major wants to talk to you,” the Master Sergeant directed.
I climbed up the ladder leading to the flight deck.
“You were asking about seeing Mount Saint Helens, earlier,” the Major said.
“Yes, sir,” I responded.
“Unfortunately,” the Major commented, “The weather report says its overcast.”
“Damn,” I said aloud.
I sat there for a couple of minutes before deciding to return to my cargo-net seat. I was hoping that the weather report was wrong – but knew they very, rarely ever were.
Getting up, I leaned down and poked my head through the doorway. I was surprised to see Deanna kissing the Airman we had jus’ picked up from Mountain Home.
Having seen them kissing – I returned to the jump-seat and stared out the window at the mountains sliding by underneath us. I felt that terrible pang of jealousy thrust through my chest.
Time seemed to drag to a stand still as I sat there trying to think of anything but what I had jus’ witnessed. I did my best to console myself with the fact that Deanna and I weren’t an exclusive couple – so I had no reason to feel hurt.
Conversation slowly increased in the cabin with the main topic being the landing. I knew we were getting close to McChord Air Force Base, even thought I couldn’t see a thing.
“Hey, Major, I lost ground,” said the co-pilot.
“What?” responded the pilot.
He reached over and pulled his headphones from the hook that held them. Then he pulled them over his ears.
Meanwhile, the co-pilot continued to call out to ground control. It was obvious to me that no one was answering.
Since I was sitting in the jump-seat, I decided to put a pair of headphones on so I could listen in on what was happening. They had been setting on the flight engineers desk, unused.
I heard nothing but the continued hiss of static.
Suddenly the Major shouted, “What in the hell is that?!
I looked straight ahead to see what it was the pilot was so excited about. Ahead of us was the flat, feathery surface of the clouds as we skimmed over top of them.
At first that was all I could see. To me the clouds appeared featureless.
Then something caught my eyes. It was a dark cloud that seemed to boil up from the otherwise white surface.
I felt my pulse start to race as it pushed up higher and higher through the clouds.
“Put your visor on,” the Major directed the co-pilot.
“Do you think it’s a nuclear blast?” the co-pilot asked.
“I don’t know,” was the Major’s answer.
Suddenly, I felt a wave of nausea wash over me. I continued to look at the dark gray cloud as it mushroomed skyward above the cloudy ceiling.
For the next few of minutes, the pilot and co-pilot flew head long towards the dark mass. They spoke to each other only now, and only about the aircraft, flying and the gray mushroom-like cloud.
By this time the Master Sergeant has returned to the flight deck and had taken his seat. That left me standing on the flight deck jus’ in front of the doorway.
I didn’t want to return to my seat as I was afraid of what I might see.
Meanwhile the air was beginning to grow more turbulent with each passing minute. Suddenly the aircraft pitched hard to the left and then upward.
The movement slammed me into the wall then tossed me backwards. I struck my head on the door frame as I literally fell off the flight deck and down the ladder.
“Man, are you okay?” called out the Master Sergeant.
“Yeah,” I answered, “I think I’ll go get buckled in.”
“Are you sure you’re okay,” he asked me again.
I answered, “I’ll survive.”
By that time, I was busy strapping myself into one of the red cargo net seats. The aircraft bounced and shuttered violently in every direction.
Air sickness over took the Airman from Idaho. He vomited hard several times to his left.
Soon Deanna followed suit. She heaved between her legs.
Meanwhile I swallowed hard and gulped a large breath of air to keep from joining the pair. Over and over again I gagged and nearly threw up.
“I’ve had rough rides before,” I thought, “but never like this.”
Looking out the window, I could see nothing but gray clouds as they rushed over the aircraft. I was sick to my stomach from the turbulence and my head ached from where I had smashed it into the door frame.
I tried to concentrate on the sound of the aircraft’s engines as they seemed to be coughing repeatedly.
Then I grew vaguely aware of a new noise. It sounded more frightening than the coughing engines.
It was a loud scraping noise, followed by two huge thumping sounds. My fear ebbed as I recognized what they were.
“Hang on,” I shouted, “We’re landing!”
The three of us gripped the netting and held tightly as the Hercules made contact with the runway. The engines screamed and aircraft groaned as the brakes were applied. Within minutes the plane was taxiing to a stop.
The Master Sergeant climbed down the ladder and threw back the latch, opening the side door, then calmly announced, “Mount Saint Helens jus’ blew her top. Welcome to Washington.”
The three of us looked at one another in shock as Deanna asked, “Did we fly over it or something?”
“Jus’ about,” was his answer as we stepped out into the ash-filled air.