Dance Beneath a Phantom

A Lamb to Slaughter

I was twenty-two and already between careers. I knew military service was a dangerous endeavor, but I needed food and shelter. I had a gift for fixing stuff from Dad, a thirst for adventure from Mom, and felt God and Country could use these right away. So off I went, into the wild, blue yonder, flying high, into the sky.

I found myself on a fine Carolina day underneath an F4 jet fighter, which was gutted by the removal of both engines, its huge panels hanging below. Somehow while disengaging one 3-ton engine from a mess of metallic engine-to-warplane hookup thingies, greasy engine mechanics had mangled a tiny radar connector, which greatly reduced destructive capacity. “Dope” and I were dispatched to the cavernous WWII hangar to make this fighter dangerous again.

Dope was a human sloth who was smart enough to finish a year of radar school and stupid enough to believe he didn’t have to work. Surprised by reality, he was seeking discharge based on personal uselessness, while USAF instead sought to send him some place cold and unpleasant. In the midst of this argument, we had to take turns using him, if no one else was available, if the job didn’t require two people. Dope was useful only for carrying tools; he rarely did.

I briskly laid out tools, cut off the broken connector, and prepared the wires for soldering a shiny plug. I grabbed our 100-foot extension cord, wrapped in a wooden spool. After locating a likely wall socket, I plugged in the soldering iron, and stood under the aircraft holding the iron in my hand, waiting for it to begin heating. I did this because finding a working wall socket in a WWII hangar could be challenging.

The iron wasn’t heating. I grumbled about it to Dope, who was settling down to a nap on top of the toolbox, and merely grunted. I cursed myself for imagining assistance from Dope. I tried a different wall socket and another. Perplexed, holding the stubbornly cool iron, I unconsciously stretched my free hand up into the aircraft belly and around a 4-inch piece of stainless steel tubing inside the engine compartment. Instantly my brains lit up with fiery static – similar to what you see on a television set that isn’t tuned to a station – only much brighter and wilder.

I could feel the electricity flowing into my right hand, clenched in a death-grip on the soldering iron. Current flowed up my right arm, through my chest and shoulders, down my left arm and out my left hand, which was now welded to the cool, silver pipe. I could not command my hands to release the deadly connections. I heard a nasty, course hum, loud at first but gradually dimming, because I was dying, and Earth itself seemed to be growing quiet, and solemn. I floated outside of my body, observing the scene before me. This was death.

I was amazed at the clarity of my thought. Floating above the machine my hands gripped like a lover, I saw every soul who had ever touched me. I relived every kind word, smile, and encouragement, from every person I had encountered – from my earliest childhood to my last friendly conversation. I saw each face, felt each hug, and realized I was beginning a journey to meet the Author and Creator of love, and was filled with joy. Superimposed upon this was deep sadness, as I considered my precious family and friends, their sorrow, unable to send my love, afraid they would think I had been in pain – but had not. I had discovered death is as natural and as calm as anything we may do.

Yes I saw that famous tunnel, and that brilliant light, and was stepping bravely toward that light to meet my God – the lover of my soul, when the lights went completely out, and I passed out. In so doing, I fell to the concrete floor, and must have thereby knocked the iron out of my hand, and let go of the silver pipe. The tunnel vanished. I awoke lying upon the cool, cool concrete, blood on my cheeks, and moaned.

“C’mon, Dave, quit goofing around,” said Dope, who had remained slouched on the toolbox, evidently not wanting his good buzz disturbed. My fresh baptism into an invisible pool filled with love and charity almost evaporated into murder, but I thought better of it. My head cleared, and I began to investigate the accident.

To avoid an explosive buildup of static charge, when not flying, USAF aircraft are electrically grounded. This is accomplished with solid copper tubing hammered into the ground, connected by a wire, clip and plug. It’s a good ground. Having just tested this system personally, I could ignore that piece of the circuit.

I checked the soldering iron – it was in working order. I checked the extension cord and discovered the safety ground, the GREEN wire, had been connected to the HOT terminal. Thus, the outside metal of the iron in my hand was connected directly to the local power company, while my other hand, when I grasped the silver pipe, was connected to a perfect ground. I couldn’t get wired into the local power grid much better than this, unless I was a light bulb.

Further investigation revealed our extension cord was repaired by a friend of mine, who passed out tools and didn’t know how to wire anything, but had coaxed three wires into fitting a connector. He felt terrible. So did USAF, which issued a world-wide safety bulletin, all extension cords immediately impounded and inspected for correct wiring by qualified electric shop technicians; repairs henceforth to be performed by qualified personnel, tested, documented, tagged. USAF is an impressive organization with regard to safety. It’s ironic when you think about it.

No official warning was issued about the stupidity of holding a potentially charged soldering iron in hand while scouring about for working electrical sockets in WWII hangars – especially when standing near well-grounded aircraft. The official USAF safety weenies prolly figured there was only one person on earth who had tried that trick – and wouldn’t do it again. Correct.

I never had to work with Dope again; and neither did anybody else on the flight line. My wonderful boss Master Sergeant Widunas decided Dope was needed immediately cutting grass and picking up litter, far away from people who might need intelligent aid.

I experienced long-lasting renewal of faith and fresh appreciation for life. I wasn’t in heaven, but I was in North Carolina, which was close enough. I made the best of the time I had been given. I learned to oil paint and play guitar. I practiced my drums. I went to see the National Museum of Art; telephoned Mommy and Daddy. I began to write. I didn’t give up all my bad habits – but began to understand some as bad habits, and treat them as such. And the honesty – in time – can pay a good dividend. Some are gone, and some remain.

Not immediately stabbing Dope with a 120 Volt charged soldering iron was a good start, on a long, long road that eventually might lead to the Land of Love and Mercy.

Copyright 1999 – David Pickens
This story is true, and resembles the characters and events that transpired to the best of my personal knowledge. I do not remember Dope’s real name; if he recognizes himself in this story – that is an amazing sign of recovery, and I hope he lives long and prospers, and has the good sense to remain quietly anonymous to the end of the age.
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  © Copyright 2002 and beyond by David M. Pickens All rights reserved. Definitely.