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A Pilot’s Story

A Pilot’s Story

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
– John 15:13

Through our work, our family has the great privilege of getting to know elders in our community, and to hear stories from their lives. We’ve had the opportunity to care for and get to know veterans of World War II, including a soldier who fought at Bastogne with General Patton’s army; a woman who as a teen was part of the Polish resistance in the Warsaw ghettos; the daughter of Irish immigrants who met Helen Keller while serving in the foreign service in Egypt in 1952; an Auschwitz survivor, who survived ten concentration camps; and others.

 

One of our clients and friends, John Eilertson, was a captain and pilot in Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 in Vietnam from 1964-65.

John flew hundreds of missions during his time in Vietnam, transporting wounded soldiers, Marines, and South Vietnamese civilian and military to medical facilities; supporting Marine patrols on the ground; evacuating American and Vietnamese wounded, as well as Vietnamese refugees; resupplying marines in the field; search and rescue missions; and combat operations.

He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for a mission he flew on July 12, 1965, helping rescue a reconnaissance Marine patrol that had found itself, while on a scouting mission about 30 miles west of the American Airbase in Da Nang, suddenly surrounded by 50–100 Viet Cong soldiers.

Later, years after the war, John, a Catholic, traveled with his first wife Edie to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, the 13th century saint. There he happened to meet a retired Marine Colonel who had been a good friend of the patrol leader, Frank Reasoner (see tribute below), who died that day in 1965 – the only casualty. For John, in the holy city of Assisi, this fortuitous meeting brought something full circle. “It was unique,” he says. “It was almost like a God-given meeting with somebody who knew him.”

Here is John’s story, as told to Cassidy & Kate:

Edie and I went to Assisi and were staying overnight in a hotel just outside of the city. We were going out for dinner and while I was waiting for Edie downstairs in the lobby, this gentleman came in and we got to talking. It turns out he’s a retired Marine Colonel who had been Regimental Commander of a regiment at Camp Pendleton [the Marine Corps Base about 50 miles south of Newport.]

We got to talking and he found out that I’d been a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1965. And it turns out that I got a Distinguished Flying Cross for helping rescue a 30-man patrol that had been surrounded by the North Vietnamese about 30 miles southwest of Da Nang.

Their company commander was shot and killed, and they had a lot of wounded and they put out a call for withdrawal from the field.

It was the middle of the night and I was in my quarters at the airbase and they told me I had to go to the operational tent. We got a real quick briefing and went right out there to try and rescue our guys in the field. It was pitch black. One of those nights that was just absolutely pitch black. No moon or stars or anything.

We cranked up two helicopters. I was flying the second helicopter.

Bill Barber, who was an old war office chief, who had served in World War II and Korea and had a lot of flying experience, he was leading in the first helicopter, and we went roaring out there.

The reconnaissance patrol had lit a mag flare that was really bright. Bill called in on the radio and went roaring in and the North Vietnamese just opened up, firing at us. They had three machine gun positions set up around the patrol. You could see the green tracers from their bullets triangulating and lighting up the darkness. They couldn’t see us because we flew without any lights on, but they could hear us approaching and would fire at sound.

Bill went in and landed, and his crew hauled in as many Marines as they could, about ten, I think. Then he called out over the radio and quickly took off again.

Then I went roaring in on the position that I had seen in the black and the darkness.

There was no light at all. I had to just hover over the position, as best I could, and used a really sparring approach into it.

I lucked out and came out pretty close to where Bill had taken off from.

There were trees on both sides, so you had to be really careful landing. It was pitch black. I went roaring in and landed.

I took on a large number of people. I forget exactly how many now, but apparently I landed pretty close to the large body of them and hauled out the most. There were a lot of wounded. I told my crew chief: Get as many as you can. They came pouring on; and that left three left in the zone: a company commander, one other marine, and a dog. (The Marines had a dog with them on patrol. This was fairly common, John said. “If you had a sniper, you’d send the dog in. We’d take them into the field.”)

Our helicopter was so heavy, the last three couldn’t get on.

There happened to be a reconnaissance helicopter from our squadron that was out that night on a separate mission, and which happened to have on board a battalion commander. He heard our mission over the radio and, as luck would have it, gave them the order to fly in and support us. I told my copilot, as we were hovering above the landing zone: Quickly turn on our lights and turn them off; give them a flash of lights in the zone, so that they could spot us and come in. And that was enough for them to be able to get in and get those last three guys.

I made a roaring exit out of there so as not to hit any trees. And we made it out okay.

It all happened fast. It’s scary but you have to do the best you can. And when I went out, I did a sharp turn to stay clear of the trees. There were some tall trees, bordering fields.

It turns out that that company commander who lost his life, Frank Reasoner, was a senior first lieutenant and was a good friend of this gentleman I was talking to in Assisi. It was unique. It was almost like I was having a God-given meeting with somebody who knew him.

They had lived, as a matter of fact, in a house almost across the street from each other at Camp Pendleton. I couldn’t believe it! Here he was waiting for his wife to have dinner. And so we all had dinner together that night. Almost like it was a miracle.

Remembering 1st Lt. Frank Reasoner

1st Lt. Frank Reasoner, one of the patrol’s leaders and a graduate of West Point, was killed during the attack, having thrown himself into the line of fire to save the life of a fellow wounded Marine.

Prior to his death, Reasoner showed tremendous bravery and selflessness, initially single-handedly taking on Viet Cong fire – despite the fact that they were surrounded by three machine gun positions and some 100 Vietnamese fighters – to try and allow his men the space to retreat to a safer position.

He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor – the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during the war. The Marines also renamed the third reconnaissance base in Da Nang “Camp Reasoner.” “The hand-lettered sign near the gates of Camp Reasoner read: ‘First Lieutenant Reasoner sacrificed his life to save one of his wounded Marines. Greater Love Hath No Man.'” (Wikipedia). The Navy frigate the USS Reasoner was also named in his honor.

He was undoubtedly an example of selflessness; of not hesitating to put the lives of others before one’s own; and was beloved among his men. He was only 27 years old when he died, leaving behind a young wife and a baby boy back home.

“Although I wasn’t yet two years old when he died,” says his son Michael, “I can think of no better legacy for a father to leave his son than the one he left me.” Frank would have been 82 this year.

John and his second wife, Natalie

John and Ninta, one of our caregivers.

The Basilica of St. Francis in the sacred Italian city of Assisi.

A gunner’s view from a HU-34 Sikorsky in Vietnam in 1965. HU-34 was the helicopter John, and all marine pilots, flew during the war. Each mission included an aircraft commander, or pilot – John’s role; co-pilot; crew chief, and gunner.

Do You Remember Barbara

Do You Remember Barbara

Barbara with her father on her wedding day.

“Remember Barbara,” begins a wonderful poem by Jacques Prevert about love and war: the Second World War and the destruction of the French port, Brest; the love of Barbara and the desolate loss of that love. It reminded me of my friend, Barbara, and the Alzheimer’s disease from which she recently died – Alzheimer’s rain of iron and fire gradually dissipating into clouds of unknowing. Barbara was one of the first persons I met when we moved to California from South Africa 30 years ago. Driving around, searching for a place to live, we were attracted to the green belts of the Bluffs, Barbara’s area it turned out. She worked in real estate and found us a home to rent. Barbara told me about how she had first taught school here in California, bringing up her two sons when her husband had left. Later she saw an opportunity in real estate and so got her license and made her own neighborhood her target. Barbara knew every house and plan. She seemed to know every tree and root, too. Our sink was backing up on a Thanksgiving day and who should drive by, as God-sent, but Barbara with the name of the only ‘roto-rooter’ who had the length of line needed to unblock the drain all the way to the street.

Barbara with her first horse.

Barbara and I got to know each other, both of us originating from small towns in the Midwest, Barbara from Iowa, I from Missouri. We both had ridden and shown American Saddlebred horses in our youth; we both were brought up Catholic. When Barbara discovered our two young children had never seen snow, she didn’t hesitate to take them to Big Bear to see their first snow. Barbara skiied, piloted a plane, traveled the world with her two sons. Barbara was a generous woman. Running into Barbara some years later, she told me of her year in bed “with some kind of flu.” I told her of our reversal of fortune and our starting an in-home care business. Barbara again did not hesitate but signed up as our first client with just a few hours, a few days a week. We helped her in her home where Barbara had helped her own parents when they were older, bringing them from Iowa so she could look after them. Barbara was strong-minded. Even while well advanced with Alzheimer’s, she was in charge. If she could not find the words, the look in her eyes told you what she wanted or did not want. About midway through Barbara’s Alzheimer’s war, Barbara was insisting upon visiting a rental that she had looked after in the past. My husband took her for a drive to distract her when she reminded him that her sons had guns so he had better do what she wanted! He smiled and kept driving. Barbara smiled too. She liked men. Remember Barbara.

Barbara laughing.

Donald & Barbara.

“Barbara”

By Jacques Prevert

Remember Barbara It rained incessantly on Brest that day And you walked smiling Radiant delighted streaming wet In the rain Remember Barbara It rained incessantly on Brest And I came across you on Siam Street You were smiling And I smiled too Remember Barbara You whom I did not know You who did not know me Remember Still remember that day Do not forget A man was sheltering under a porch And he called out your name Barbara And you ran to him in the rain Dripping enchanted blossoming, And you flung yourself into his arms Remember that Barbara And do not be mad if I address you as tu I say tu to all those I love Even if I have seen them only once I say tu to all who love each other Even if I do not know them. Remember Barbara Do not forget This rain wise and happy On your happy face On this happy city This rain on the sea On the arsenal On the boat Ushant Oh Barbara What a bloody farce this war. What has become of you now Under this rain of iron Of fire of steel of blood And the one who enclosed you in his arms Lovingly Is he dead or disappeared or indeed still living Oh Barbara It rains constantly in Brest As it was raining before But this is not the same and everything is ruined This is a rain of mourning terrible and desolate Now it is not even the storm Of iron of steel of blood But merely of clouds That simply die like dogs Dogs that disappear In the water flowing over Brest And will rot away In the distance far from Brest Of which nothing remains

The Frequency of the Wood

The Frequency of the Wood

Gwen in her Northern Kingdom

Gwen in her Northern Kingdom

“Had a lovely trip over to Jura and took a boat out to a whirlpool of the end of the island.  Believe it is the third largest in the world and whilst the waters were choppy and lots of undercurrents we did not go round and round in a whirl – which I was slightly disappointed about. Last year we had a lovely relaxing holiday in Tenerife with friends.  Lay in the sun for a bit, swam, visited some lovely old villages, drank wine and played cards oh and we went paragliding – was up at 4000 ft!  Amazing and I was clinging on tight!” (letter from Gwen)IMG_6766

Sometimes you have to take up the imagination of the dead and let it back into your life. Gwen was like her Orkney gloaming, a clarity of light energetically still, a blackbird lilting up the strath and down the glen, before dark, a glaze of sight, crépuscule. She was “tuned into the frequency of the wood”: Gwen, a woodwind in the forest orchestra.

Orkney Chair

She didn’t hide in an Orkney chair but donned a red wig, nobody knowing whether to laugh or cry. If she had paid too much attention to the hair, she would have skipped a beat when she got the cancer diagnosis. She skipped no beat and became a redhead. She was too alive to really look at herself.

Orkney

Orkney

Nothing endures, particularly a good hair day, especially when you’ve lost it all. Gwen laughed and looked north, filling her lungs with the wind and the rain, despite the pain she was in. She put on her red wig and still went to work. When she needed to top up her coffers for a new adventure, she would happily pick up a job (ushering at  the theatre, working in real estate). She often said she couldn’t wait to be a pensioner when she would ride a bus anywhere for free. She was frugal, not to a fault but with a vision.

IMG_7127

 

Gwen

Gwen did bag her Munros and saw most of the world, happy to stay in youth hostels while in her late sixties! She loved to travel as much as she loved to play golf and dance the Highland fling. She seemed fearless except for the occasional shadow in the night. Neil, her husband told me of a shade that often took her breath away at one of the three gates she had to unlatch, getting out of the car with the wind up and only the darkness leading back to the farm.

One day Gwen took me up the moor to check on the sheep. We found one ewe with the lamb stuck, its head sticking out, the ewe just standing there, also stuck. With her shepherd’s crook, Gwen pinned the ewe on the ground for me to hold while she pulled the baby lamb from its mother. Gwen then rubbed the newborn lamb against the mother’s nose so she would know her, suckle her and all would be well.

Gwen was tuned into every bit of life around her. With her, I now look more closely.

Wood Anemone calling Spring

Wood Anemone calling Spring

"to thole the Winter's sleety dribble"

“to thole the Winter’s sleety dribble”


 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
Evergreen  6.22.15

Evergreen 6.22.15

A poem Cassidy wrote in memory of a beloved Coral Tree client, Mary, a Japanese-American woman, who lived in Irvine and passed away in June, 2015 at 90 years old. Mary was buried at Evergreen Cemetery, in Boyle Heights, in East Los Angeles. Evergreen is one of the oldest cemeteries in L.A., and pays tribute to city’s – and our country’s – long, sad, and, at the same time, beautiful immigrant and interracial history. “Evergreen is notable for never having banned African-Americans from being buried at the cemetery and has sections for Armenians, Japanese, early white settlers, and a large section of Mexican graves.” (Wikipedia.)

Evergreen Cemetery

Evergreen Memorial Park & Crematory in the East Side neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. “There is no other cemetery that so encompasses Los Angeles’ rich multi-cultural past — often violent, surpassingly unique, and now poignantly forgotten.” Photo Hadley Meares.

Evergreen 6.22.15

 

Everbrown thuds the eye but not the sound of air,

Four ravens four corners as if with quorks their cloudsheet squared

And swooped with grace and Mary met them there.

Below we stared, uneven graves from all over the place–

Japanese, Chinese, English, Spanish, a potter’s fare

(American homeless stretched their last there).

Around us Boyle Heights, Latina lanes and names,

Embroidered blouses espaliered to rod-iron frames,

Shirts stretched their sleeves, red, yellow, black,

Pop-up shops–block by block, rack by rack.

Flowers for homage edged the Evergreen lot.

Still the sleek hearse came, birds calling nonstop,

Sun-stilled tear-streaked daughter’s rain

Seemed right, dust maimed we were, are

Till Mary came, white orchids in her train.

 

Mary loved white orchids.

Further Reading

Hadley Meares piece for KCET on Evergreen Cemetery here: “Evergreen Cemetery: Snapshots of a Forever Changing Boyle Heights.”

A History of Evergreen Cemetary

Boyle Heights and Evergreen Cemetary

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
Pope to the Bishop of Brambles

Pope to the Bishop of Brambles

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Forest of bluebells.

Lexie and Ian knew each other from childhood  on the outskirts of Glasgow. Ian was an only child, eager for Lexie’s sisterly advice and culinary tips for his wild bounty of berries: raspberries, brambles, blaeberries and sloes collected from the countryside. Ian gathered not just the rose haws for vitamin C (offerings he  made to his school teachers during the food  scarcity of post-wartime Scotland) but the flower of the rose Lexie so loved.

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before they were married in 1960

She took delight in all flowers and  so Ian offered her a rainbow of Scottish wildflowers–from the pink dog-rose, the orange field poppy, yellow bird’s foot to the spiky purple vetch and inevitable thistle. He plucked  the yarrow for her to hide under her pillow to help her find her lover, but the red clover he kept on him so that its scent might lead her back to him in the impenetrable Scottish fog. It did. She found him.

After they married they moved to northern Scotland for Ian’s first teaching job. Lexie used to walk the snowy village in northern Inverness-shire, pushing wee David in his pram to keep them both warm while gathering firewood. It was too cold to sit in their unheated cottage, “baltic” as Lexie used to often say. They wisely planted a vegetable garden which fed them particularly when they were ‘skint’. Ian always knew where to find the wild fruit to make jam and Lexie always joined the WRI (Woman’s Rural Institute) winning many prizes with her concoctions. Lexie was a joiner, a believer in contribution.

brambles

Brambles.

Lexie never questioned second place because it wasn’t the placement that mattered, it was the doing, the getting on with things. She had done well at school but because she was a girl, she was not allowed to go to university. Her father’s narrowmindedness did not stop her. She became a pharmacologist, her knowledge and work ethic becoming the support for her husband Ian so that he might obtain his Master’s degree in English Literature. She believed in him and his work on Henry James. But she also liked to read.

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Lexie, Ros, David and Laura

Eventually, while looking after three children, her husband and father-in-law, Lexie got her university degree in English Literature. She liked Conrad, his power of the written word to make one see. The power of Lexie’s eye to make one see was striking: not in the sense of sheer volume, range of sight but her magnificent focusing. That same reason perhaps that Conrad loved the solid stance of his world at sea, where he could stand amidst and look out to the wild, terrifying, glorious sea and sky, Lexie stood firm in the ship of her self, her engineering self, able and capable of balance amid life’s tumults to measure and make do so well, even with her Lupus joints working against her. She could fix floors, food, furniture, flower gardens and foreign students with their English, to name a few. Lexie,  ever-ready with her well-oiled tools and a G & T thrown in for good measure.

Lexie at Glencoe

With Lexie, there was no swithering. She was an engineer, the word “engine” deriving from the Latin ingenium (c. 1250), meaning “innate quality, especially mental power, hence a clever invention.”[5] That’s what Lexie was like. She could make things work, even us. We all benefitted, not just Ian and her three children and granddaughter spread around the world, but all who knew her.

Once retired to Lyon Cottage in Strathtay, Lexie gave her time to the Scottish Presbyterian Church not to mention gardening, golf and writing clubs. Lexie kept the key to the old church and churchyard at Logierat and was able to fill me in on some of the Macdonald family history in the Tay Valley. She made friends up and down the valley, helping the housebound with transportation and groceries. All this while never complaining of her own struggle with Lupus. What irony that it was an accident, not Lupus that sent her spiraling. When Lexie was dropped off after a meeting, her scarf caught in the car door. Her friend drove off, not realizing that Lexie was being dragged along the icy road. Although those injuries did not stop her, the pain from those injuries which Lexie tolerated so silently and stoically, veiled undetected cancer cells that took her life last December without warning.

In her wake, sea-gleams of heaven.

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W.R.I. picnic, Lexie enjoying the fare


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
His Strong Toil of Grace

His Strong Toil of Grace

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Doug, the man who “didn’t like cats,” with Eldridge.

Doug said he didn’t like Shakespeare: “too difficult”. Yet, he quoted Macbeth as he remembered reading every work of Faulkner when he was serving his country in Taiwan in 1967. “…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Towards the end of his life, it took a mighty heave from his whole body to get out one word at a time, a courageous effort signifying everything. Doug not only made each word count, he said the word is everything. What we take for granted, he put back in place.

With his cerebellar ataxia diminishing his body for the past sixteen years, and its attendant awkwardness, monumental frustrations and severe discomforts, Doug never complained. His stellar mind observed from the bluff of his body, watching the dizzy battlefield below–his arms that wouldn’t work, his legs askew, his muscle control, shattered, sundered, his vision blurred. Not a leader like Lord Cardigan, the inglorious, incompetent and neurotic commander of the Light Brigade (given command on April Fool’s Day, 1854), but the masterful mind of Douglas Smith, CPA, MBA, and Master of Tax Law, that powerful mind led, watched and ironcially participated in the tragic waste of his own body: his most beautiful purkinje cells from his cerebellum ran amok, went AWOL, deserting him.

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Doug in the army, 1965-67.

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The desertion of Doug’s purkinje cells.

From the many facets of his brilliant memory (and his extensive knowledge of military history), Doug returned again and again to Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” (a poem he and Ted, his colleague in Taiwan used to quote), “theirs not to reason why.” The beat of the light brigade, “was there a man dismayed? Not though the soldier knew…theirs but to do and die,” that beat Doug knew so well. Like the six hundred, he, too, rode boldly into the “jaws of hell.” His return to this poem was no coincidence.  Its ambivalent tone celebrating heroic valour while mourning its loss perfectly expressed Doug’s condition in that living valley of death.

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Doug’s grandfather painting

He was proud of his English background, particularly his English grandfather who traveled the world and who became an artist in his latter years. Was it his favorite grandfather’s influence that explains Doug’s choice of architecture for his first two years of university? Only after his death, did Doug’s interest in art make better sense to me. He not only appreciated art; he was an artist. His sister has a collection of his sketches, paintings.

With the continual support of his wife, Jean, and his friends, Doug became a Catholic in this last year of his life. He christened himself the Trifecta because he received three sacraments in one go. However he came to his faith, he made clear the thread left by his Irish grandmother, Delilah Guffy, and perhaps answering the question, “did we come all this way for birth or death?”

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Doug standing third from right, up for “Boy of the Year.”

Doug kept his sense of humor right to the end, recounting his favorite Mandarin phrase picked up in a Taiwanese bar, “my friend will pay.” Between Faulkner, the tax code and the Roman liturgy, Doug found beauty and made a line of order around himself. He was definite: “close that door, open this one.” Despite the ataxia (from the Greek, meaning ‘without order’), Doug did this.

Proudly and bravely, he offered his beautiful, brilliant neurologist, Dr. Jen (from UCLA and Taiwan), what was left of his purkinje cells as service to us all. Our friend did pay. How fitting that Doug died as the sun set on Christmas day.

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Doug, center, after his Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation. Spring, 2011.


 


Coral Tree In-home Care provide caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.