This is a hard one to write. We all want to be the good guy and it is hard to admit to having been cruel. At least for me it is.
Felix Knight was an army buddy of mine back in the early 1980s. To be totally accurate he was more of a church/Scouting/army buddy of mine; we were both serving at the same base but saw each other more at church and Scout meetings that we ever did while in uniform. I don’t think that I ever saw him without a big smile on his face, but that big smile hid a lot of pain.
A decade earlier he had been an Army aviator serving in Viet-Nam, flying the OH-6 scout helicopter (a.k.a. “loach”). As was the case with most Hughes Aircraft products the OH-6 was extremely survivable; in the case of a crash the rotor blades would detach and fly away from the fuselage, unlike the OH57, a Bell product whose blades would dip down and across the pilot’s side window during a crash. The egg-shaped OH-6 fuselage was also designed for “crash attenuation”; the tail boom would also break off upon impact, allowing the fuselage to dissipate crash energy by rolling around unencumbered.
All these factors contributed to Felix overall survival, but he didn’t escape the crash unscathed. He had been approaching a landing zone that had been hacked out of triple-canopy forest, and when his helicopter crashed he was hurt quite badly (especially in his back) when the aforementioned survival features of the OH-6 were impeded by the close-set tree trunks. The Army subsequently attended to his needs, but the reality of Army life meant that he could no longer fly. What’s more, he was reduced in rank (and pay) from Chief Warrant Officer 2 to Staff Sergeant and put to work as an office.
I interacted with Felix mostly in connect with Boy Scouts; he was the scoutmaster and I was his assistant Scoutmaster. There were many Wednesday nights when he’d call to say that his back was giving him a bad time and if it were possible for me to run things at the troop meeting that night. I’d faithfully fill in for him and deal with the boys on my own, but there were many nights when the air would turn blue in my little Audi wagon as I’d drive home complaining bitterly about having the whole program shoved off on me. I mean, his back couldn’t hurt that bad – to the point that he couldn’t still show up and help me a little…and I was annoyed at the way his voice would kind of tremble but still sound cheerful when he’d call. I mean, I’d already agreed to run the whole show. He didn’t have to get all theatrical on me.
The last time I saw Felix was in 1982, so he wasn’t around when I had my own service-related injury. It was a night parachute jump with full equipment and I had the misfortune of first getting caught in a wind-shear ( change in wind direction part-way down) then landing in a freshly plowed field, all benefits of that plowing being negated by the muddy areas where the adjacent irrigation ditches overflowed. Instead of a PFL (parachute landing fall) I had made a “PFL” (poor f***ing landing). I ended up with two compressed discs and some herniating with a third but I was young and buff enough to keep up with my duties, no matter what .
No, it wasn’t until I contracted Ankylosing Spondylitis some years later that I the light finally clicked on. ( A/S is a autoimmune condition of the spine involving progressive joint immobilization and eventual immobilization and went undetected for years because of my jump injury. There is no cure and it is extremely painful) The A/S compounded with the old jump injuries put me into a whole new world of chronic intense pain – and then the arthritis got into my hands and feet, twisting and inflaming the knuckles and making both complex artistic activities and simple everyday chores an exercise in misery that new world became a new universe.
The “ light came on” late one night as I was rocking on the side of the bed in severe pain and wondering what to do after being rebuffed by a fellow church member I had just asked for help with activity. He had refused, then intimated that I “was using health problems” to avoid my responsibilities…and while those words hurt, they were nothing to the pain I felt when I thought back to when I said those same words about Felix.
Few things in my life have prompted me to cry like I did that night when I realized I had been guilty of the same cruelty.
I haven’t seen Felix in 32 years. I hope that he has been able to find some comfort and relief from the constant pain. Mostly I hope he has forgiven me. It’s going to be a while before I forgive myself.