Going to Work with Dad

by William “BBall” Ball

Do you remember when you were growing up watching the television shows of the 1960’s? Those family-friendly shows would often times depict one of the kids happily heading off to work with his or her father. Be he the town constable, the local insurance salesman, or even the master clown at the rodeo, the chance to be seen with the ol’ man at his place of work was a treasured thing for a young person. The shows way back in the (innocent) early days of television captured that perfectly. Somehow you knew that in real life, when YOUR Dad walked out the door on the way to work, he was embarking on yet another quest to slay the proverbial dragons and keep the family safe. The problem as a young lad was that you rarely got to see him in all of his glory, doing the actual dragon killing. In that realm, I’ve enjoyed a huge advantage on most men of my generation; one that gives me comfort in firmly placing my father as one of the true heroes of my life. Having the chance to spend time with my Dad at his workplace when I was growing up was undeniably an experience that helped shape and give direction to my young life. It was an adventure that few can equal, for you see, my Dad was an Army helicopter pilot.

This is what a hero looks like…at least in my humble opinion.

Let me back up a bit.

I am my father’s son. To be more precise, I am what he was, because he was what I admired and hoped to someday become. We were both blessed to have spent a large part of our life literally with our heads in the clouds. We’ve each had the good fortune to have logged thousands of hours turning, twisting and banking through the skies far above the world of the earth-bound folks we served. I am a professional aviator today in large part because he was one back then. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that my love of flying machines was a gift slowly and gently given from him to me. In that respect I owe him a lifetime of joy, excitement, and gratification at my place of work.

Back to the present.

My children over the years have asked me many times, “When do I get to go to work with you? My friend (fill in the blank with generic kid’s name) went to work with her Mom (or Dad), so I want to go to work with you.” From a person in my profession, there is no easy answer to a child with such a question. I remember 28 years ago as a brand new airline pilot, seeing this play out first hand. We were tasked with finishing a long day with a “milk run” from Great Falls, Montana over the Bitterroot Mountains to Missoula for a two-day layover. It was a late summer evening, beautiful weather, light passenger load, and the Captain’s young son was onboard accompanying his Dad to do some mountain stream fishing. Shortly before pushing back from the gate, this Captain did something that I’ll never forget; something that greatly shocked both me and the Second Officer. He excused himself from the cockpit and returned a few minutes later promptly strapping his son into the Boeing 727 cockpit observer’s jump-seat. To our confused looks, he offered, “oh, and Timmy will be riding up front with us on this leg”. What the heck? This was blatantly against company policy, strictly against Federal Aviation Regulations, and as far as I was concerned (as a new employee whose job was on the line), directly counter to my expectations of staying employed at this airline! Again, the airplane was essentially void of passengers, the flight attendants could care less if “little Timmy” were up front with us, and way back in those days the Captain of the ship was just that…the number one honcho, the boss, the “dude in charge”. What he said was the law, and that was pretty much the end of it. If I tried something like that nowadays, umm… let’s just say I could be writing this from a large brick building with bars on the windows. I would dearly love to take one (if not all three) of my kids to work with me someday, but if they harbor any notions of being in the “same room as Dad” when I’m actually working, then they can just forget that nonsense.

The 1960’s rocked as a kid.

My days as the child of an Army Aviator were full of incredible fun, excitement, and adventure. To add some perspective, those were the magical days of the 60s and in my world most things fell into one of three categories: neat, keen or just plain cool. I was blissfully unaware of the pending torment of the generations poised at each other’s throats, and I generally lived in a kid’s world doing kid’s things. I do distinctly remember the JFK killing (I was in 2nd grade…the news hit, the teachers broke down crying, and we were sent home), but I had no idea that the coming years would hold more pain, death and destruction than I could imagine.

The upside back then was that we would do things just not heard of today. For instance, we would ride our bikes long past dusk without the panic of an “Amber Alert” being flashed across the heartland. It’s not that our parents didn’t care for us; they just didn’t worry like parents do these days. Our entire society was in many ways blissfully clueless. We would watch Mom enjoy a martini and a Marlboro to calm the anxiety and jitters of yet another pregnancy. Every Sunday evening we’d gather around the black and white Magnavox, and watch shows like “Bonanza” not knowing that color TVs (and the insanity of “reality TV”) were the frame of our future. When we’d pile into the station wagon, we’d sit serenely bereft of seatbelts as Dad cruised down the street with one hand firmly on the wheel while the other was clutching an ice-cold Budweiser. Yep…those were the salad days of the 60’s.

Just another Ball Family adventure in the mid-1960s… yours truly at far left.

The downside for your average fourth grader was fairly ambiguous, but nonetheless not so great. At grade school, we were presented with a stream of drills telling us stuff that seems pretty asinine in retrospect. For instance they told us that when the “Red Horde” finally did launch the nukes, we were to stay calm, get under our desk, cover our heads and for heavens sake, “don’t look toward the flash”. My generation now laughs at this idiocy, but back then we accepted this without question somehow believing it would all be OK (as long as we didn’t look at that dreaded flash). As a parent I now understand why the grownups back then didn’t want to pop our collective bubbles, for it would surely cause more angst than it would cure. Oh, back in those halcyon days of my childhood, acting out usually meant more than a stern glare or a “time out”. It could mean a whack upside the melon, or a kick in one’s posterior (by a size 11 combat boot) that would make Beckam proud. “Corporal punishment” was a tool in every parent’s grab bag, and 99% of them had no issues using it (I can attest to that from personal experience). For the most part however, the 60’s were mostly magical days to be a kid, and for this kid more special than for most. So incredible that riding out to the airfield with Dad was just something my brother and I did on a regular basis. Much like getting our weekly “high and tight” haircut at the P.X., or tucking in our shirttails before we entered the school building, it was just part of our life. And life was good.

The day of days.

One dreary Fall morning in Munich, Dad rounded my brother John and me up, marched us to the Plymouth Fury wagon and off we motored toward the airfield like we had many times before. On this wet, misty day however, our regular routine was interrupted by an unannounced enroute stop. He pulled into the parking lot of the base liquor store, and dashed inside. Within a few minutes he returned with a paper bag containing a bottle of the world’s finest Army Aviator’s “go juice” (that would be Jim Beam whiskey for the uninformed). My brother and I took little notice of all of this other than the extra ten minutes we spent in the car. This changed when we crossed the MP guardhouse signaling our passing from the quasi-civilian base housing to the actual military part of our Dad’s world. Here we were greeted by a young man, pistol on his belt, his stern face and a razor sharp salute directed toward our Dad (and my Dad’s crisp return). We instantly knew that we were firmly back in his world of deadly seriousness. An olive drab world of zippered flight suits, meaningful gaits, heavy duty vehicles and loud flying machines. We were in the company of men that did things we barely understood, things that only heroes could accomplish, and we were somehow a very small part of it all. We had been here before, and we knew it was little-boy heaven.

As we entered the building that housed these larger than life men known as Army pilots, we came face to face with someone that could throw a wrench into this day’s plans. We were hell bent on hanging out at work with our beloved Dad, and being turned toward home would simply not do. In military terms this man was called the Officer of the Day. In civilian terms, he is a person that has drawn the duty (for that day) from the Company’s pool of pilots to be the “unit fireman” as it were. If anything in that particular unit needed timely attention, he would be there to make decisions, affix a solution to a problem, and generally stamp out whatever fire had sparked to life. On this day the O.D. was (like my Dad) a Warrant Officer, an Army aviator, and most importantly, a good friend of the family. They greeted each other warmly, smiled like Cheshire cats while the paper bag holding the bottle was passed between them with a soft murmur of, “is it still on?” This was followed by a small nod between the two conspirators that was barely noticed by the two boys present, but apparently it sealed the deal.

“My Dad on one of his days as the ‘O.D.’”.  Nuremburg circa 1966

In no time, we three entered the hangar for my Dad’s unit and were greeted by a wave of familiar sights and smells. Later in life I would spend time working as a mechanic’s helper at the airport of the aviation university I attended in Oklahoma, and the smells would come home to roost. My boss back then, an old, grizzled mechanic by the name of “Ralph” once shared with me this snippet of wisdom; as a pilot, I should never trust the work of mechanics from a hangar that gleamed with cleanliness and pristine order. Ralph lived by that mantra, and I’m happy to say that this particular U.S. Army hangar would’ve made him very proud. The smells of cleaning fluid mixed with engine oil, grease, gasoline, cigarette smoke and sweat permeated the entire hangar. To our young nostrils it was the perfume that flamed our passion for these exotic flying machines, and we reveled in it. My Dad stopped and briefly chatted with one of the mechanics, he then signed something and before we knew it, we were walking toward the flight line. The tall one in our group was adorned in his flight suit, carrying a flight helmet bag and privy to the secrets afoot, while the two short ones sported an air of nonchalance adorned with their typically clueless expressions.

As we approached the far end of the flight line, we found ourselves standing next to a machine that was as familiar to us as our Schwinn bicycles. We were preparing to climb into an Army UH-13 “Sioux” helicopter, the type that became world renown from the opening scenes to the TV show M.A.S.H. My Dad introduced us to her at an early age, and I learned to be as enthralled by her as I’m sure he was. A large amount of his flight time (and the one peace-time accident that he experienced) were logged in that beautiful bubbled cockpit. A great deal of his flying yarns starred him and his beloved H-13, and someday I’ll relate the story of the time he attempted to do a loop in that little whirlybird.

"The UH-13"

The H-13 wasn’t my only airborne love as a young boy, for I was fortunate enough to spend many hours with my butt firmly planted in the various helicopters that my father flew (and a few fixed winged… or “airplane” to the civilian tongue). I’ve “logged quality time” in the H-13, the H-34 “Choctaw”, the UH-1 “Huey”, the L-20 “Beaver” and the L-1 “Bird Dog”, plus many that my Dad never flew, but provided me with a guided tour.. All reeked of a curious mixture of leather, canvas, avgas and the ever present cigarette smoke, and they all became an important part of my early childhood. My brother and I would happily spend hours twisting every knob, throwing every switch, and pulling (or pushing) every flight control apparatus. This was standard procedure for us when we would follow Dad to his place of work. He would be tasked with some sort of paper work issue or office duty, so he would drag us to the airfield, find a machine at the end of the flight line, disconnect the battery cables (or whatever else he did to render it inert), and leave us with the following warning: “Play here. DO NOT leave this machine. Move any switch or knob, jerk any lever or push any pedal, but stay with this machine! Understand?” We of course would happily nod while barely hearing the issued statement. After all, we were already engrossed in our collective imaginations and about to depart on yet another adventure.

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