Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Mid-February, 2008.

Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley, California.

We, civilian sheepdogs, often journey to majestic Death Valley to re-cement relationships spanning decades.  This time it was a long weekend riding off-highway dual sport motorcycles. My god, what a weekend!

Our group enjoys a special kinship with military warriors.  Have you ever heard of warriors referred to as sheepdogs?  Well, probably not. Put succinctly, sheepdogs run towards the gunfire and sheep run away from it. Three sequential photos taken in Iraq illuminate the notion.  An American soldier was walking through an Iraqi village when something happens; perhaps it is a bomb explosion or maybe gunshots.  Whatever happened, the soldier continues to stride forward purposefully while the Iraqi crowd flees in pandemonium in the opposite direction.

During the Vietnam War, an American colonel postulated the concept that humans are sheep, sheepdogs and wolves.  Sheep symbolize the majority of humans. Wolves predate upon the sheep, and the sheepdogs, both military and civilian, protect the sheep from the wolves.

My buddy Russ announced that he was packing a 5 foot by 3 foot American flag to display and thereby honor military sheepdogs should an American military jet fly nearby. That fired-up everyone’s enthusiasm.  Russ’ plan was a fine token of appreciation for our military sheepdog brethren. And, the plan was not far-fetched since military jets routinely fly the Panamint Valley skirting the western edge of Death Valley National Park. The valley is part of the military’s Special Use Airspace Complex.

For several days we negotiated dirt/gravel byways occasionally clogged with snow. The roads did their best to topple us if we slowed too much allowing the front wheel to plow and lose steerage. It is as if someone kicked the wheels right out from under you.  One second you’re upright, and the next you are down, or struggling to keep the motorcycle from pitching you head over heels.  Through all of that, we failed to spot a close military jet.

Homeward bound, two pick-up trucks loaded with motorcycles, we headed southbound through the Panamint Valley. The Panamint Mountain Range, home of Ballarat, the former mining town and now virtual ghost town, and Barker Ranch where Charlie Manson once hung out, graces the eastern flank of the valley with Telescope Peak rising to 11,049 feet. Clear, dry and tranquil it was. No wind. No birds flying.  Maybe a lizard hunkered under a bush or skittered about. We were tired and mellow.  Russ drove and I relaxed.

Suddenly, blasting over the mountains and dropping into valley, coming northbound toward us like the birds of prey they are, two Fighting Falcons, fast and low.  Dwight and Tim stopped ahead of us.  Russ stopped.  Bailing out from the shotgun side, I struggled to deploy Russ’ flag. The lead F-16 passed just to our west.  I’m not sure that I got the flag out in time for the lead pilot to see it. But three seconds later, Ol’ Glory was fully displayed for the Wingman.  He came straight up the road directly at us a mere 500 feet over our heads. If you have not had a close-up experience with a low flying military jet, let me tell you this, it is an incredible sight and sound to behold.

Russ and I were still high-fiving when both birds banked to an eastbound and then a southbound heading. Two black specks rocketing down the valley, back the way they came. When the leading jet turned westbound toward our partners, I realized that they were going to come around for another pass. I envision the radio conversation that might have occurred between the pilots.

Wingman to Leader: “Did you see those guys holding up Ol’ Glory?  Let’s go around.”

Leader to Wingman: “Roger. There are two stopped vehicles about a mile apart. I’ll take the first, and you take the second.”

Wingman to Leader: “Roger that.”

Lead jet buzzed Dwight and Tim, climbed out of the valley, and departed away to the southwest. Seconds later, Wingman turned northbound and descended this time to about 100 feet off the deck thundering up the road directly at us. Russ and I, holding Ol’ Glory stretched out between us, were head-on eye-ball to eye-ball with Wingman piloting his fifty foot bird with a thirty-two foot wing span and weighing up to 42,000 pounds.

Wingman’s first fly-by was routine.  But, not this time.  Now, it was personal.  Wingman did not know that we were fellow sheepdogs but he certainly recognized the respect that we accorded to him.  There was a connection between a pilot and two patriots standing steadfast in the desert. My feet were anchored to the ground like I had grown roots. Destiny deemed that I had no other function than to stand there with Ol’ Glory. It was as if we and Wingman were engaged in an intertwining dance, playing integral parts in the same play; a mutual salute. We were one. The tension was intoxicating.

The Fighting Falcon’s maximum speed at sea level is 915 mph.  I don’t know what speed Wingman was doing, but he was cooking. Whooom, he passed over us and immediately pulled a high-g ascent as straight up as an F-16 can do, propelled by the flaming jet engine. A barrel roll and Wingman was gone as fast as he arrived leaving us with the mist and smell of jet fuel and a memory of a lifetime. The tension released and Russ and I went nuts, like a couple of kids. When we regained our composure, it was so quiet.

Saddling up and continuing toward home, the desert and mountains once again paned by giving testament to their endurance, as if frozen in time but not. We drove mostly in silence for quite awhile.  I was absorbed in my thoughts; I suppose that Russ was too.

That is the way it happened when we said, “Thank You.” And, they said, “You are Welcome.”

Uu-ah, Sheepdog!  Hunt the wolf.

1 comment:

Robert Johnson said...

Incredible Patriotism, Fellows. My Country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Thank you