In 1982 or 83 I wrote a story titled “Oil Patch Pilots” for Soldier of Fortune magazine. This was a story about the helicopter pilots of the Vietnam War who found work flying crews to and from the Gulf’s offshore oil rigs. During one group interview in a ready room, while talking about flying, Vietnam and the oil rigs, my brother Wayne told the story of blowing the transmission in his Bell helicopter and having to auto rotate into the Gulf. When the helicopter hit water the floatation devices failed to fire and the helicopter completely submerged before a short in the system finally fired the floats and the aircraft bobbed to the surface. Wayne turned to the passenger, a top oil company executive, and said; “don’t worry it’ll float."
The oil executive quipped, “yeah, but it is supposed to fly!”
Something else Wayne said during that conversation also stayed with me; “The problem with those oil rigs is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ If people can’t see the rigs, they are out of mind of what can go wrong.”
Wayne warned that someday, something would happen to one of the rigs and in his words, “there will be hell to pay, and hell has a big price tag.”
Wayne died before seeing his prophecy come true. In the closing years of his life Wayne increasingly fixated on religion and had an increasing critical rage over the veracity of mega industries, such as today’s BP, and politicians.
Wayne is only one of my brothers who died from the lingering effects of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. In my research of how our government has used chemical defoliants I’ve learned that they were deployed in the Korean War and at one time commonly used around nearly every military installation with any sort of vegetation, which included the vicinity where another brother (also dead of cancer) served at an isolated radar installation. Of the five of us who served in Vietnam only one brother seems to have escaped the ravages of exposure to AO and that is because he was based in Thailand and flew over Vietnam. As for myself, every day is a new adventure in pain--but such is the price of glory.
Some argue that my family is predisposed toward cancer, an argument that can be easily disproved, other doctors have said they believe Agent Orange contains a chemical that is a triggering mechanism that turns on a family cancer gene. Another doctor said it is because all of us were smokers (all of us quit in the 80s) and grew up around a smoker—my father. But neither one of my parents died from cancer.
There are no clear answers—only the graves and the questions.
I bring this up because once again there are the dead, admittedly the dead are birds and fish and mammals, but they are just as dead and there are lots of questions. I had a flood of questions wash over me this afternoon while I watched a skein of geese pass over my house and begin circling the slough north of town. Come October, how far south will the waterfowl of the central flyway go? Will they stop short of the oil-covered marshlands?
I thought about Wayne and the distrust he brought back from his years of flying in the Gulf. I thought of Albert, Richard, Robert, Jerry and Wayne, now cold and buried. Albert trusting that the vaporized metals he breathed, while he welded those oil tanks, wouldn’t kill him, but they did. Richard, spraying “weed killer” around the radar shack, Robert, in Korea and later Vietnam, twice exposed and Jerry hearing the liquid falling on the roof of his hootch in Vietnam when the planes flew over, and finally Wayne. He brought back pictures he had taken from his gunship when he flew escort missions for planes dropping defoliant, long after the practice had allegedly been stopped. And now our young people, the pride of our country, are fighting again. What will they bring home? Are they like the geese that, come this autumn, will join the hummingbirds, and robins, and waxwings, and bluebirds and who really knows the others, and all fly south; they will be trusting, as they always have, that nature will be right. But this time nature will not be right and the tragedy is nature did nothing wrong.
We did, and no man can resurrect the dead.
1 year ago