Francis Meyrick

A Blip on the Radar (Part 6) “Backflips “

Posted on September 22, 2009


Life and Death are real and immediate in the Tuna Fields. Men cope with the inevitable risks in different ways. Gallows humor, cruel and unkind to some, is an ever present fact of Life. No target is ever too sacred. Some would say it’s just a method of coping. ‘Men talk’. ‘Bar talk’. Others would say it’s barbaric and sadistic. The following story illustrates this. It is perhaps not for those with advanced, higher, delicate sensibilities…


I debated calling him by another name. Maybe Jimmy, or Ted.
But I guessed he’d be offended. He’d email me with a growl, and write:
“Moggy! You son-of-a-bitch! What’s this Jimmy shit? Do you think I’m needing to hide? Dammit?? ” Carl would look the Devil himself straight in the eye, unfazed, and not back up an inch. So I’ll just call him Carl. I think he’d prefer it that way.

Carl was a Tuna pilot. Still is, I believe.
He was also an extremely highly experienced former Vietnam attack helicopter pilot. His job was ‘hunt and destroy’, and his tales were utterly fascinating. Carl is a born story teller. It’s in his genes. If you ever have the pleasure of being propped up in a bar, pleasantly mellow, and listening to him, you will enjoy his company. His eyes take on a shine, his arms wave around the sky, but somehow they never knock anybody’s beer over. I love telling a yarn, but for some reason I’m the clumsy dude who will knock your beer over. Or mistakenly, whilst demonstrating my flight path, poke the waitress behind me, plumb in the boob. You’ll hear the stories of my clumsiness, and they are all true. Especially the one about the Russian stripper the bastards secretly set me up with…
(oh, that one can keep until later…)
There are many stories around about Carl. I’m sure they are all true. The ones I describe below, I can vouch for.
That… is the way they happened….

Carl had an engine failure one day, in His Bell 47, with the Korean captain sitting beside him. We all knew he did not like the Koreans very much. He described them in unflattering terms over the radio every night. Down they went, with Carl doing his pilot thing. At fifteen hundred feet per minute rate of descent, with a loud silence from the engine, the poor Korean was -understandably- frightened. As they were coming down through two hundred feet, in autorotation, the Korean shouted he was going to jump out. Carl admits he was busy, and that he said, in his matter-of-fact, laid back, laconic style:
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you…. ”
I can just see Carl, tunnel visioning in on flying the machine and preparing himself for the flare. I know he would have been quite relaxed, nonchalant even, enjoying his tobacco chew, but concentrating 100% on the task in hand. I would have been more excited. And I know I would probably have yelled: “For fuxsake SIT TIGHT! ”
But not Carl. I doubt if his pulse even measured a ripple. It was all in day’s helicopter flying for him. He swears he never saw the captain go, and I believe him. He was too busy. He did a nice auto, judged the flare perfectly, and popped the little bird undamaged down on the Pacific Ocean.
No captain.
The ship arrived, and they went looking for him. They found the poor captain’s body, very dead, floating. They retrieved the deceased, and hoisted the helicopter up. Carl calmly fixed the carburettor problem, and soon the bird was perfectly airworthy again.

The next morning, we were all in the air. The chat frequency was solid with everybody talking about one thing, and one thing only. Next thing…. here comes Carl on frequency, perfectly happy, flying and fishing. Everybody of course wanted to hear the latest! Carl, for his part, was his usual relaxed self, and happy to fill in the details.
Yes, the captain had jumped out, presumably at around two hundred feet.
Yes, the first mate had now been made captain, and they were carrying on fishing. Once they were full up, they would be heading into port, to offload the fish, and the dead captain’s body.
“How does the crew feel about it, Carl? “, somebody asked.
“Well “, said Carl. “I can’t say I’ve noticed many regrets…. ”
“Why is that? ”
“Well, I’m not sure the crew liked him much. As for the First Mate…. he’s just been made captain…. ”
There was a pause.
“And last night, well, hell, he did something he’s never done before… ”
“What was that, Carl? ”
“Oh, he just brought me two whole crates of beer…. ”

“How do you feel about it, Carl? “, somebody asked.
The frequency went silent. You could sense the hush as a dozen pilots strained not to miss the next pronunciations on the matter from our laconic Vietnam ace.
“Well… “, he said eventually.
There was a pause. You could sense him, leisurely chewing away, quietly formulating his thoughts.
“I was actually thinking of taking a leaf out of the Old Western Frontier Gunfighters book… ”
Silence. You just know everybody is thinking:
“Huh…? ”
He continued.
“I was thinking, since I got rid of one of the little slant-eyed gits anyway, I’d go and cut me a notch out of my cyclic... ”

* * * * * *

A while after that adventure, we were all fishing together. Sometimes all the ships are really spread out, maybe hundreds of miles apart, and at other times you will find twenty ships within a ten mile square area. It was on one of these occasions, that Carl, once again, went into Tuna History. This time, he performed another trick, that to my knowledge has never been done before. Or since. It is unique in the annals of Tuna Anecdotes…
Quite simply, Carl forgot to remove his right front tie-down. That is why I always preach the “Gospel according to Moggy “, where tie-downs are concerned. In a nut shell: “They are either ALL on, or they are ALL off. ”
If Carl had been a convert, the following adventure would never have taken place. But, typically, he was a heretic, and proud of it, so he did it his way. His unique way…
Carl just took off with the tie-down still attached!
Anybody else, anybody, and they would have died, there and then. Taking off with a tie-down attached was ALWAYS a 100 per cent guarantee of a terrible crash, a smashed helicopter, and, almost always, a dead pilot and/or dead observer.
But here comes Carl….
HIS tie-down… simply….
The event was witnessed by a stunned pilot and a mechanic on another ship, and another equally flabbergasted pilot passing overhead.
Carl took off, the right front tie-down went tight, spun the machine around – in flight- one hundred and eighty degrees in an instant, and then…. broke!
His Bell actually flew backwards for a second, in a weird ricochet-boomerang effect from the tie-down going tight.
He recovered, flew away, shook himself, and carried on fishing!
I was only a few miles away, and I missed seeing it. Sure wish I had. However, that night, on the chat frequency, the talk was, once again, of nothing else but Carl’s latest epic. The mood was one of hysterical unbelief. Nobody could believe anybody could have gotten away with such a stunt. Next thing….
Up comes Carl on frequency!
True to form, he was totally at ease with the situation. Most of us would have been still shaking, discovering Jesus, getting drunk, or contemplating the career of brothel keeper.
Not Carl….
Carl quite enjoyed the revelry. He thought it was a great adventure. He was laughing. He told us they were brand new tie-downs, and obviously had a manufacturing defect. It was that defect that had saved his life, as the normal breaking strength of the webbing used is measured in the range of many thousands of pounds. The relatively minute tug on the webbing the helicopter placed, was in no way even remotely sufficient to have broken it.
Well, somebody wanted to know, how did Carl feel about it all?
There was silence on the frequency, while Carl quietly thought about it.
We all waited. What would Carl say?
“Well “, he said.
“I was actually thinking…. ”
You could sense there was a deep thought coming…
“…of suing the manufacturer “.

* * * * * * *

A lot of us were into scuba diving. True to my somewhat more serious outlook on such matters, I joined PADI. I took lessons. And slowly and thoughtfully worked my way up the skill and knowledge scale. Basically, you start out with shallow dives. Slowly, slowly, you go deeper. I never passed a hundred feet depth until I had over 35 dives. I studied the books. The theory. I worked with an instructor. And I moved cautiously. I never hit a depth of 130 feet (the maximum depth recommended by PADI) until I had over 60 dives. I eventually qualified as a PADI Divemaster. I only once went deeper than 130 feet, and that was an accident.

Well, Carl and one of his drinking buddies decided that scuba diving could be fun as well. Their boats were in Truk Island, in the middle of the Pacific. The Japanese fleet suffered many ships sunk there by the Americans during World War Two. The wreck diving, with teeming fish life, and magnificent corals, is unique. People come from all over the world to dive there, often at great expense. We lucky tuna pilots, when our ships were there for offloading the catch, got to be there for free. It was here that Carl and his buddy decided to cut their teeth scuba diving.

There are diving schools and diving instructors available on Truk Island. Plenty. But Carl and his buddy weren’t too worried about that. They just ambled into a diving shop, pretended they were old pro’s, rented some equipment, stepped off the beach and went diving!
The niceties, the theory…. that’s for the birds. For the wimps.
And so it came to pass…. that on his dive # 5, a now expert Carl the Scuba Diver, was having great fun down at a depth of 160 feet. Him and his buddy. All went well, until abruptly…
Carl ran out of air! At a depth of 160 feet.
If you know anything at all about scuba diving, by now your eyes are wide open! Believe me, when I heard the story, mine were.
What our hero had achieved there, was undoubtedly the scuba diving equivalent of forgetting to undo your helicopter tie-down on take-off…
Now what? His buddy was not too far away, and in a few fu-fu-frantic strokes, Carl managed to swim over, and grab his buddy’s spare regulator. Thankfully drawing in air, he communicated his distress with hand signals. At this stage, with both men breathing off one tank, they both had the same thought to maybe check the remaining air supply in this one tank. Wonder of wonders. That tank was also just about empty. Had they bothered to study the theory, they would have learned that, yes, at that depth you use a LOT of air, very quickly. They looked at each other. Now what?
All they could think of doing, (and I must admit, what DO you do….?) was to inflate their BCD’s (Bouyancy Compensator Device) and perform a ROCKET vertical ascent. You are supposed to ascend very slowly, very steadily, to avoid ‘the bends’. Our two came up so fast, that, Carl admitted to me, they exploded half out of the water. Like a cork out of a bottle, they came head, shoulders, and down to their waist out of the water on that first, panic stricken surfacing.
They did now realize they were in big trouble. People have died from the bends, for doing much less than that. There is no hyperbaric chamber on Truk, to treat divers suffering from the bends. To all extent and purposes, they were in deadly trouble. They grabbed two full tanks of air, went back down to fifteen feet, and stayed there for forty minutes.
Slowly, they then surfaced. Worried, and wiser.
Wonders above wonders, both men survived their brush with Fate, and suffered no after effects!
Even Carl, the unflappable one, was a little thoughtful, as he related to me the whole story of his adventure.
The story went around our little Tuna fleet like wild fire. And I wonder how many people thought the same as I did:
“ONLY Carl could get away with that…. ”

* * * * * * * *


St Mary’s Hotel on the small Atoll of Tarawa, is a regular hang out for tuna pilots. The label “Hotel ” should be taken with a degree of Polynesian salt. True, they serve beer there, the most essential function demanded by the Tuna Foreign Legionnaires, but the rough wooden tables, the few dubious rooms, and the tales told by former occupants ( “Man, I took a shower, and the HOT didn’t work “, or “Holy Cow! I took a shower, and the water stank of urine “) made the label “hotel ” seem a trifle exaggerated. It was more of a shack in the woods. A roof and no walls.
If you stayed drinking there until late, you could watch Mary’s extended family start going to bed. They would amble in, grab a vacant table, climb up on it, stretch out, fully clothed… and go to sleep! Around them, the extremely noisy bar scene, with cheerful and boisterous tuna pilots and mechanics blowing off steam, would carry on unabated. It was a little odd at first, but you got used to it. There was no closing time. They served beer until the last protagonists staggered (or were carried) back to their respective boats. I never heard or saw a sleeping local on the next table complain, even when we were drinking AND singing.

One night, we had a busy scene going on. There was a lot of us legionnaires there, and Carl was in ebullient form.
He was entertaining us with one story after another, and I remember he was in full flow. His humor was different. Altogether on another planet. Often he had no intention of being funny. It was more a case of his extraordinary illogic, and his outlandish reasoning, that reduced us to gales of laughter.
In the midst of all this, the environmentalists strolled in.
GreenPeace had arrived.
We had watched “Rainbow Warrior ” sail in during the afternoon. And later, a high speed launch could be seen leaving the mother ship, with a lot of young people, mostly girls, wearing the same, flashy, GreenPeace jackets.
Now, they were here, and mixing in with a gang of drunken, raucous, Tuna Hunters blowing off steam.
Needless to say, it degenerated. One of the ladies was quite reasonable. She was also more knowledgeable. She accepted that fishing had been going on for as long as Man had existed, and that the issue was not the principle, but the sustainability.
With that I could fully agree, and I said so. I still hold the same view.
Unfortunately, two or three of her companions, with that peculiar haughty, snobbish superiority of the young and privileged, did not exhibit the same realism. One in particular, with a high voice, was determined to make us feel guilty. When asked by me if she knew the difference between a Yellowfin and a Skipjack, she had flushed red, and drawn loud groans from the assembled Tuna Hunters. She then admitted to me that the only reason she was on the Rainbow Warrior was that “Daddy had made a large donation “, and I got the picture there!
For some strange reason, she seemed determined to put Carl in his place, and I soon sensed her strong pacifist, anti-war leanings. Carl to her must have been the personification of the Devil, the more his war stories progressed, and his vivid descriptions of ambushing Viet Cong insurgents in the Mekong Delta in his helicopter, and his exact descriptions of the effect of explosive ordinance on real human targets. I for my part, playing once again the role of the dumb schmuck in the background, was utterly enjoying the face-off. I could only wonder where it would lead.
She tried to interrupt him more and more, and I could see Carl was not even remotely intimidated.
In the midst of a story dealing with dismembered, flying body parts, Carl, arms waving, was finally aware of her indignation, as she rose to her feet, drew herself up, and practically screamed:
“You MONSTER! Tell me, how does it feel to cold bloodedly KILL real people? What makes you so proud of it? What is your ultimate GOAL?? ”
Her indignation was real and shrill, and a hush fell over the bar.
Carl, interrupting his war story, for the first time, deigned to look over to her, calmly and without any discomfort.
“Well, Ma’am “, he said politely.
I held my breath,
“The GOAL is to hit the little yellow bastards with the right caliber, and in the right place… ”
He trailed off, and raised a finger, as if about to reveal a crucial trade secret.
“Because if you nail ’em just right… ”
He smiled, beatifically happy at the fond memories…

“They do BACKFLIPS…. ”

With that, totally unruffled, he went back to his war story.

(Exit: GreenPeace…..)

Francis Meyrick

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Last edited by Francis Meyrick on December 24, 2014, 9:00 am

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