by Jake Block
I remember participating in one of the many war games in the military… an Operational Readiness Exercise… where you basically went to war with an invisible enemy. You engaged it as if it were real, launching hundreds of troops and massive amounts of materiel in a deployment, just as if you were actually going out to confront this enemy and fight to the death. There were long hours. A “working day” was 36 hours long, and you worked building pallets of munitions, spare parts and food, loading aircraft with everything from field kitchens to tanks, marshaling the troops and getting them loaded on their planes and then grabbing your gear and getting on the plane with them. Then, your ADVON Team was on its way to — where? You seldom knew. You just knew that in a short time, you would land and you would have to unload this mess, this armada of twenty planes, and set up a forward airstrip, ready to receive the endless stream of planes to follow. So, you slept for what seemed to be moments until the plane touched down at some southwestern desert location. And you got to work. Your thirty six hour shift was now half way done.
And that was the way it went for seven consecutive days. Food when you could eat it on the run, water once in a while, and you would die for a cup of coffee. And when you thought they couldn’t work you any harder, it was time to do it all again, but in your chemical warfare gear and gas mask in 110° temperatures. Your four hour sleep periods were scarcely enough to keep you from hallucinating, but then, gratefully, you loaded the last plane and were preparing to go home. “The war” was almost over, but then you and your crew are called to the aircraft just before loading and told, in all seriousness: “Look guys, here’s the problem. We are the last plane out of Dodge, and if we make it into the air in 30 minutes, we pass the ORE. If not, we fail and we do it all over again in 3 months.” Just as you began to breathe easy, the commander got serious.
“The plane has a SERIOUS problem. There is a problem with the front landing gear, and the pilot tells me that it could be a sensor, but if it’s not… and we have no way of checking it here… there is a 60% chance that the plane will have to belly in when we reach Travis.” He scanned our group and then answered the unspoken question…”No, this is not an exercise, this is real world.” He waited for a moment to let that sink in and said, “OK. We either go or we stay, and that’s YOUR choice. If we go, we take that risk, but we will pass the ORE. If we stay, we wait for a replacement plane to bring in the maintenance crew and we fail the ORE. This is a serious decision, and I won’t hold it against you if you decide not to go. Think a minute and…”
One by one, without saying a word, each member of the crew picked up their bags and threw them onto the aft ramp of the plane, then walked onto the giant C5 and began to strap them down. We lifted off with 27 seconds to spare and flew from the desert to Travis AFB with the landing gear down, hoping it would function when we got there. The drag was terrible, and the plane was buffeted badly during the 4 hours it took to get there. But we slept when we could and then, the captain’s voice came across the speaker.
“Travis tower tells us that they have emergency equipment in place and we are number one for landing. I am going to try to land the plane on its rear wheels and power it down the runway, keeping the nose up until the last moment. If that works, we should be ok. If it doesn’t and we have to belly in, (land with no wheels, sliding on the belly of the aircraft), all I can say is hang on tight, and when the plane comes to a stop, pop the emergency doors, get out and run like hell to at least 100 yards from the plane. Now, make sure your seat belts are fastened. We’re going in.”
The next 10 minutes lasted two hours. It was as if everything was in slow motion as the plane landed, nose high, and slowly decelerated on the runway, finally, when the plane was almost stopped, lowering the nose of the plane. A sigh of relief as the gear held and the plane was down. We unloaded as calmly as we could and grabbed our gear as we exited the plane, nodding and smiling at the pilot who looked a lot younger than he sounded over the loudspeaker in the plane. The red flashing lights of the emergency equipment were everywhere as we made our way through the dark to our wives and friends who were waiting for the plane to arrive.
There are times when there’s an easy way out, and there are times when, despite the danger, you do what you have to do. This, I think, separates the wannabes from the real deal; those who simply do what they need to do to get by and those who do what they HAVE to do despite the risk, honoring their commitment to do what they set out to do. No, there’s no extra pay in laying it on the line, maybe some measure of respect from those who wonder if they would have made the same choice, but the real payoff comes with that feeling inside when you know you faced the abyss without blinking.
Make no mistake about it. “The Abyss” is there for us all, whether we work in retail or combat related jobs. Sooner or later, you are going to face a crisis that will require you to put up or shut up. It’s a time when all of the theories of how you are going to react meet head on with the stark realities of the situation at hand. Some will rise to the occasion and some will falter. Some who thought they would back down from a challenge will surprise themselves and take it on without blinking an eye, and some who felt that they could handle anything will crumble. It’s life. There is no sure thing, and especially when it comes to your philosophic, financial or physical survival.
Everything you do in life is in preparation for the day you will have to face that test of strength and inner fortitude. The way you interact with others, the way you project yourself, and the way your character is molded by handling situations and learning from your mistakes all come into play. If it happens… WHEN it happens… you’ll find out if you’ve been well trained and well seasoned to complete your tasks and emerge victorious. Sometimes you’ll win, and sometimes you’ll lose, but that’s ok. There are a lot of potential abysses in our lives. Each will test you in one way or another. It’ll be totally up to you as to how the adventure ends.
Life is like training for those war games we had in the military. You might not be carrying weapons or facing death, but the tests will teach you a lot about yourself.