November 11th, 2009
It was just another article in the New York Times, one focused on President Obama making a special late-night trip to Dover Air Force Base. “October has been the deadliest month for United States troops in Afghanistan since the war began eight years ago…” the article stated, going on to describe how press were able to photograph, for the first time since we went to war, a president saluting the flag-draped containers of Americans killed in action. President Bush strictly forbid this kind of photo.
Returning from Afghanistan were seven soldiers and three Drug Enforcement Administration agents killed in a helicopter crash. Accompanying them were several others, including eight soldiers killed when their Stryker vehicle was gutted by a roadside bomb–an IED, the signature weapon of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It wasn’t until the weekend when my mom emailed me a link; one of the helicopter pilots was my childhood friend, Michael Montgomery. I don’t know his politics, and right now I’m not interested in talking about why we are in Afghanistan. We simply are, and Mike was one of those soldiers.
As kids we had spent many an hour looking at national guard brochures, talking to recruiters at the county fair, and sitting at the controls of parked UH-1 “Huey” helicopters, the Vietnam era troop carriers, trying to catch snatches of conversations the veterans were having. It was our boyhood dream to be pilots. Mine stopped short when I asked a recruiter about my poor vision; “you’ll never fly,” was his terse reply, crushing me.
Mike had no such issue. When he died, he was flying a MH-47–those banana shaped, twin-rotored helicopters–for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. They fly support for special operations soldiers, doing a variable, high-intensity job, one of Mike’s fellow pilots, ‘Zeus,’ said. There are few pilots with their training and so they are rotated every two months to avoid burn out.
I asked if he and all the other men he stood with had come from Georgia for the memorial. Yes, he had, Zeus said, then paused. “I was there with him,” he added. “I was his roommate. I flew back with him.”
“Were you at Dover?” I asked. “Did Obama salute Mike?”
“Yes, there were 21 that day,” Zeus replied. Our president greeted 21 dead soldiers when their bodies were returned home. One of them was Mike.
In the early ’80s, when my parents moved us to a wooded lot in unincorporated King County, Mike was one of my first friends. We would play in make-believe space ships on the elementary school playground, naming the jungle-gym-turned-spacecraft with titles inspired by our cats. At home we would draw pictures of the ships; it would help us visualize our creations at recess. Mine was a ridiculously christened the “Kitty Fritter,” and underscored how socially inept our group of friends was; none of us played the ever-popular handball very, nor did we relate to girls or organized sports. We were dreamers, lost in our own world on the playground.
During high school Stan moved to Boise, Idaho. He had some troubles during that time, but now has a family and, to my knowledge, continues to cut hair. Ewan joined the British army right out of high school. Incredibly polite for his punked-out image, he was prone to passionate monologues on Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” After he joined the army he told me he started having acid flashbacks at the firing rang. He said he saw people running between the targets. Later, he took his assault rifle to the barracks bathroom and shot himself in the head. I remember my mom told me while I was studying for a chemistry exam; at 16 I don’t think I knew what to do with it. I went back to studying.
Rusty was another one of our group that played in the woods and had sleep overs. His dad was a scoutmaster with a loud voice, especially when he yelled out his son’s name “Russell!” They had some troubles. Later, in Seattle, I ran into Rusty from time to time. He was usually dressed in black and talked about martial arts. Last I saw, he was working at the local Office Max.
After high school Mike disappeared into the National Guard; we talked a little and he told me how much he enjoyed being a helicopter crew chief. When his grandmother died, he came back to town to help his mom sell the house and move. I remember that place; the smell of her cigarettes, his grandmother shouting “Michael!” His love for Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. When “La Bamba” came out, a film chronicling the story of Valens’ rise to stardom and tragic death, we not only saw it several times but his mom took us to the Los Lobos concert at the Paramount Theater in Seattle–because they played “La Bamba.” It was my first rock concert ever.
Throughout junior high we would run around the woods hunting each other in big games of capture-the-flag. We’d spend our allowance (or, in my case, earnings from cleaning horse stalls) on military fatigues–preferably Vietnam era olive drab–and military camping equipment. Then we’d take off overnight into the 80 acre cow pasture, or we’d traverse the hills between our houses, hiking quietly through the woods while avoiding all the homes. Dinty Moore stew and a can of Sterno were our overnight rations. I became adept at lighting fires and building small shelters, things I learned in a Tom Brown field survival guide.
I remember Mike as a constant, a predictable person of stable character. Not boring, but easy to get along with, fun, up for an adventure but not irrational. Granted, this is me as an adult reflecting on a relationship I had as a youth. At his memorial service his army buddies spoke of his ability to laugh, to break the tension of the moment in order to keep the focused on the mission. They spoke of bonding moments and throwing back drinks. I never had that opportunity; I never knew him as an adult. But in the photographs I saw the kid I knew, the smile, the posture, the way he held his hands.
Even today, I can tell you how to fly a helicopter; what the pedals do, how to roll power in as you lift the collective, but I’ve only touched the stick of a tied-down vintage aircraft. I’ve flown in helicopters, but I’ve never flown one. Mike made his dream come true in the military and, while he signed on in a time of peace, he really wanted to fly.
At the memorial I introduced myself to his wife, Anita. With the sad smile of loss she said “It’s something he really wanted to do,” as if she’d prefer he didn’t fly, but knew he wouldn’t be Mike if he didn’t. She made me feel good when she told me how Mike spoke of me, that I was an important part of his youth. He refused to have a Facebook account, but one evening the two of them looked me up through her account; he hesitated to friend me. I wish he hadn’t. Or, maybe, I should have taken the time to find and friend him. I would have liked to know the adult Mike, to tell him I was proud of him for following his dream. I would have liked to meet Anita and their son, Riley, under better circumstances.
Instead, there was a brief memorial service in a church near the high school, complete with soldiers in full dress and a motorcycle escort for the motorcade. Driving by the football field reminded me how we’d talked of going “stag” to our senior prom–I had to ask what that meant.
When we reached the cemetery, the torrential rain let up as the soldiers set Mike atop his grave. Some words were said, flowers dropped, a flag was folded and presented to Anita. With her permission I photographed; I watched through my lens, wishing I had a longer one, for I felt I needed both the distance and to be closer. I wanted to walk away and to be present–to deny this was happening but also to feel the importance of the loss. As I looked at his son I remembered our youth, I remembered playing with Mike. Riley is nearly six years-old. Not much younger than when Mike and I met, and about the same age as Luciana’s son. As he dropped a white rose on his father’s metal casket my vision blurred again. Riley wouldn’t get to play with Mike like I did.
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