This is Richard Cope and I in the P.I. celebrating our survival of a near-death experience in Vietnam. I play a makeshift kazoo made of a peso and comb, backed up by Airman Cope on vocals. Rollie plays lead guitar in a Caviti City night spot.
We have good reason to be happy this night, having just fallen from the sky over Cam Rahn Bay. Life is new and there is pure joy and goodness in simply being. Earlier that day, you see, we had been pinned to the overhead of a falling Lockheed Super Constellation. Truth be told, there's part of me still living where the wind wails like a Tom cat as the airplane dives. Cope still hangs onto a milk can and I still hold my guitar frozen in mid song. We had been stowaways on the Navy troop transport which is why we weren’t strapped into a seat like the rest of the dying men. Cope and I aren’t even on the roster, but we are very much among our soon-to-die brothers in that moment.
We got into this situation by spending the evening buying beers for crusty old Chief Traxler. The chief is the father of fellow Cam Rahn photographer Buck Traxler, and he also happened to be the Plane Captain of the falling Super Constellation. Sometime around three in the morning, Chief Traxler agreed to sneak us onto his craft. Overloaded already, two more souls on board won't hurt we all allow at that cloudy morning hour. Chief Traxler says we should stay hidden in the crew's bunk area until the bird achieves lift off. “About the time we’re airborne boys,” Chief Traxler says, “ain’t nobody gonna care if you’ve stowed away or not.”
Now with G-forces on our cheeks, I’m overwhelmed by the unfairness of dying young. I had been singing at the front of the plane when the fall started. Cope and I had thought emerging from hiding with a bawdy song would be funny. So out we came soon after liftoff singing, “Hey Lodie Dodie," a song high school friend Larry Stundtner had taught me for such moments. Now we are pinned to the top of the passenger cabin as the plane dives.
It’s then in that moment when I witness my first miracle. Light comes through the window of the diving plane and illuminates the face of one of the sailors. It’s a beautiful golden light that seems to come from within the sailor. He looks like an angel. His face is calm, and he has no fear of death. I’m moved by his braveness, and feel warm and reassured. Though I’m pinned like a bug to the overhead, his smile gives me peace. Then I hear Cope say, “Might as well just keep playing.” In what was surely the last moments of my life, I position the guitar and manage a few simple soft chords. It was all I could do but it seemed meaningful.
As I played those chords, the second miracle happens. The pilot somehow manages to pull the old bird up out of the dive, and we all get to go home. We’re told later we had brushed the treetops in a dive caused by avoiding a mid-air collision. Chief Traxler came back and told us two Air Force fighter had buzzed the Navy base as we took off. They came so close to the transport he could see their eyes.
“Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord,” Leonard Cohen spoke of in his song “Hallelujah.” Is that what happened that day? Did I find the magic chords and please the Lord? Even so, I forever fall from the sky over Vietnam. Life goes on, but being alive has new meaning since that experience. Life is doing something meaningful, even if just playing a guitar chord. Everything I’ve done since then happens in those last few moments before impact.