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A wonderful human ... and another

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Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 10:45 am | Updated: 9:46 am, Tue Nov 20, 2012.

A marvelous human being departed this earthly life on Aug. 25. And he’s one who departed this earth and yet returned – in July 1969.

It matters that Calaverans honor this extraordinary man, in our own deepest humility, much as the humility he always had so genuinely inside himself.

There’s another extraordinary but quite unknown man I honor in the same breath – but more on that a little later in this column.

Neil Armstrong was more than an accomplished pilot, Navy air-combat vet, and after 1971 a professor at Ohio State. He was more than an astronaut, the first on the moon. We know all about that part.

Let’s be blunt, in comparison to this superb American:

In these interminable years of bald lies by most politicians, we hear their all-so-obvious hypocrisy, their blatant pandering to get re-elected and stay on the taxpayers’ dole – or to get on the taxpayers’ dole by election for the first time. The patience of many of us has run out. You know as well as I do: Most politicians think that “spin” and honeyed words quickly confirmed as false can fool us. Crikey – an Aussie expression – I’m 71, and my patience has finally run out.

But then there’s a wonderful person – Armstrong – whom I never knew, but who embodied the American values I cherish the most: Just do your job, don’t yak. Be honest with me, don’t pander. No lies, just tell me the truth, so rarely done. There are lies – the lies we each told as kids and got disciplined for, and then the damn lies – the adult lies designed explicitly to manipulate me and others. Damn lies have ascended to stratospheric heights.

Then comes a true “quiet man.”

He had no interest in publicity – quite the opposite. He shunned that ephemeral nonsense.

Do you know why Armstrong was selected for Apollo 11, the first moon-landing shot? He was the coolest cucumber in the bunch. A test flight of his on the “flying bedstead,” the earliest test-horse for subsequent design of the Apollo moon lander, was filmed by NASA. It was a dramatic episode.

The film shows Armstrong’s amazing presence of mind. When he was 500 feet in the air, test flying that crude vertical flying contraption, one of the four lift engines suddenly quit. In less than three seconds, while the flying bedstead upended and flew out of control and crashed – in that less-than-three seconds, Armstrong cooly radioed to the scientists below the two bits of data they needed, and then ejected.

Just in time; if he’d been a millisecond late ejecting he’d have died. Another revealing episode: During an orbital flight of Gemini 8, in 1966, the capsule suddenly and inexplicably began gyrating and tumbling, out of control, in one of the scariest situations ever to face our astronauts. Armstrong as pilot got it back under control within less than a minute.

So, no wonder. Among the hottest pilot-astronauts, NASA chose the most competent, and the one who was the most quiet.

I speak also of a wonderful friend, my commanding officer in Vietnam: Lt. Col. Russ O’Connell, commander of A Flight, 17th Special Operations Squadron, Tuy Hoa, Vietnam, 1969-70. Vietnam was his third war for his country: World War II when he flew P-47C fighter-bombers out of England and over France and Germany, against incredible ground fire; then Korea when he flew repeatedly into Pusan, when our forces were pushed back to that farthest southeastern corner of Korea and were nearly routed; and Vietnam, for the most hazardous of Special Ops air missions – at night defending our Army Rangers, Marines, and other troops deep in the bush.

Russ and I are friends forever. Especially after a mission that was near my 200th, when I refused to let our aircraft fire one night, when a brand-new, over-eager major wanted to fire when I had no positive ID of the target, whether it was an innocent village in the dark or not. Russ supported my decision. The major left our squadron soon after.

Just two months ago, Russ lost the love of his life, Flo. You should see their wedding picture, 1942 – Russ in his Air Corps uniform and Flo in her wedding dress looking like Hollywood stars, and so much in love.

Neil Armstrong and Russ O’Connell are the quiet Americans, the kind we depend on but don’t really know it these days.

I guess I’m ashamed to tell a story of one of my missions – am I grandstanding, like a politician running for office?

Bill Withuhn, of Burson, knows something about flying in hazardous conditions. From Special Ops in Vietnam, he holds two Distinguished Flying Crosses, each with “V” device for valor, the Bronze Star, and the Presidential Unit Citation. Contact him at wwithuhn@aol.com.

© 2015 Calaveras Enterprise. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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