A Bell 47 (bubble chopper) hovering
over the crowd with a TV cameraman at "Jumpin Jacks" riverside drive-in
got me hooked. Jumpin Jacks was the hang out in my upstate New York
town and they had the perfect location between the big City Park and the
Mohawk River. They were having the first ever "professional" water
ski competition in the area and it was the place to be. I was a sophomore
in high school and I was there to see the skiers and the girls.
When that chopper came down and hovered over the far end of the crowd and stayed perfectly still for so long so the cameraman could get his footage I just watched in amazement. Soon the crowd's attention went back to the skiers except for one person, me. I quickly made my way over to the area near the chopper and just watched. That's what I wanted to do, fly choppers like that guy.
School was always a problem with me. I was the oldest of 6 kids and had somewhat of a language problem from the git-go. Until I was five I was being raised in the Polish section of Schenectady listening to Polish all day on the side while everyone tried to speak English in my presents including my Swiss born mother who only knew French and had to learn English here as well. Mom was a war bride. When I was 5 we moved across the river to the town of Scotia where new homes were going up all over the place. I was one of the first of the baby boomers.
Though nobody in our new neighborhood spoke Polish or French except for Mom and Dad the damage had apparently already been done and I was put in the 3rd (last) reading group in grade school. Though one of the neighbors tutored me in reading it finally caught up to me in the 4th grade when I had to repeat it. I was always the day dreamer and was told so by many a teacher. Class would be going on and I would be looking out the window thinking about hunting or fishing. I guess I had settled in to being one of the dummies of the class.
I want to say something about Polish people here so you can get a better perspective of things. As I understand it the Polish language is almost the exact opposite of the English language. Because of that the early Polish people that came over to America were the last to adapt to the language and were labeled "dummies" because of such. Now the good LORD always seems to compensate folks for the things he lays on them and the compensation for the Polish people seemed to be an extra dose of common sense. If there is an easier way of doing just about anything chances are the Polish person in the group would find it first. So much for being Polish.
By the time I got in high school Dad had just about given up on me school wise. My 5 brothers and sisters were all doing well in school and did that ever put the pressure on me. I had one redeeming quality thought and that was fact that I was a champion wrestler. Because of my size (110 lbs.) I didn't dare go out for football, they would cream me. If you didn't go out for football you were a no-body so I went out for wrestling and was good at it. In my sophomore year I was undefeated in dual meets. In my Jr. year I couldn't make weight and didn't want to knock my friend out of his slot just above me. In my senior year my record was 22-2 (124 lbs.) with both losses to the same guy who knocked me out of the state finals. He went on to take 3rd I believe, so I had to be content with being in the top 16 of the state. I was the very first in our school to get offered a wrestling scholarship and it was to Cornell University. I didn't take it though because I knew I would flunk out and Dad, being a factory worker, didn't have much money and there were 5 much smarter brothers and sisters right behind me that were college material.
Scotia was a fine place to grow up and was considered a middle-class area. Most of the class took the "regents" course in high school that was required for college at that time. I also took it but barely passed the English course. Early in my senior year talk started about what college who was going to where. Viet Nam was big news and they were always showing helicopters carrying the troops around. So I made my way to Schenectady (about 3 miles away) and made the rounds of the recruiters there.
I was pretty naive back then and thought the "Army" was all the services combined. I went to the Air Force guy first and he said "no college, no flight school". The Navy guy said the same thing and sent me to the Marine recruiter. He said the same thing and suggested I try the Army. He then got me straight on just who the Army was and told me they were going through a lot of chopper pilots and might have lower requirements. So I went to the Army recruiter.
The Army recruiter took a lot of time with me and explained that college was not a requirement but if I really was interested I would have to go to Albany (the state capital) and take a lot of tests. Damn, Albany, I had never been further than Schenectady by myself and going all the way to Albany was the same as going to some foreign country. He then told me there was another guy that was interested in becoming a chopper pilot and that we would be going together. They would supply the bus tickets, a map showing us where to go, lunch, and a ticket back. Since the testing was to be on a Saturday I could sneak out for the day and do it so I agreed.
Now I had to keep all this secret because if I flunked out, due to the testing, I didn't want anyone to know. When the time came I made some excuse for being away most of the day and beat feet back over to Schenectady where the recruiter was waiting. There I met Russell Bowers who also wanted to become a chopper pilot. With instructions in hand we boarded a bus for the big city.
Albany was only about 45 minutes away by bus but it was new to both of us. We found the recruiter's office and signed in with about 20 other guys. I don't remember for sure but I think we had to take a quickie physical first. There was 2 hours of testing in what was left of the morning session and 4 hours for the afternoon session. During lunch we all had to go several blocks away to a cafeteria that would accept our Army food vouchers. We couldn't help but to look up at the skyscrapers that surrounded us. Just then a cop car let loose with one of the new multi-wailing sirens that we had never heard before and did it ever echo between the buildings. We both thought a UFO was coming down. We were just a bunch of country boys in the big city for the first time.
As I remember, the testing was virtually all "IQ" type tests. Years later I was to learn that the Army was basically looking for 3 things in a Warrant Officer Candidate for flight school. Because they were going through so many pilots so fast they had to wave the 4 years of college requirement and go with just the 3 basics traits that they needed. They needed somebody that was at the top of their "reflex ability" which meant someone between 18 and say 25. They needed someone that could "think fast" so that they could get that ship and crew back when everything was going wrong. And they needed somebody that "didn't know what they were about to get into". That was me to a tee.
I found the testing rather tricky. All the test were timed test. One had a big picture at the top of an aerial view of some city. On it were several letters. Below the big picture were several smaller pictures of the city that had been taken from street level. You had to match the smaller pictures with their corresponding spots on the aerial view. That one was easy. The aerial view of the stone quarry was not. All it had was a million stones, a truck and a light pole with a wire. I had almost quit on it when I noticed that the shadow of the pole was the "key". That made the rest of that test a snap.
There was only one other test that I remember that was a real bear. Along the top of the test, in very small print, were 10 pictures of different items and under each was a huge number. The rest of the test had the numbers lined up in mixed order with the 10 items in order, along side at the top of the row. You had to pick which item the number corresponded to. This test had several pages and I think we had only a few minutes to do it all in. I started it but got only a few items down and thought to myself that this has got to be impossible. I snuck a peek at the guy next to me and he had the same bewildered look on his face as I apparently had. A quick look around the class and it was obvious that we all were lost on this one. I knew there had to be a way. Then I noticed that there were exactly 10 items. The key was that only the very last number of the picture mattered, the rest of the number was just there to throw you off. I finished the test in time and couldn't help but to notice that I was the only one to do so.
About a month later we got our scores and I had scored a 127 which qualified me for flight school. The recruiter said that Russell had also passed and that we were to go in on the buddy system. He instructed me to enjoy my senior summer and he would arrange for Russell and I to go into the service when everyone else was going off to college.
Back at school I let it out that I had passed my test for helicopter flight school but few believed me. Almost all my friends had been accepted to college so that was the real talk and I sort of felt left out. I got a couple of "you, flying helicopters, yeah sure!!!". Didn't bother me though because I knew I was in.
Eventually Mom and Dad cornered me and asked what I was planning to do after I graduated. I told them I was going to fly helicopters for the Army. I got a pat on the head and a "yeah sure" from them too. When I told them that I had gone to Albany and took all the tests and passed then things got serious. I felt that both of them though still felt I'd last a month or two then flunk out. Dad was relieved that I wasn't going to give college a try and waste some of the money that could be used for my siblings. Mom was worried about Vietnam though.
When fall came around the recruiter called Russell and I in. So here I am, just out of high school and headed off into the Army. I had it all planned, I'd buy a used car at Ft. Dix and head back home on weekends to see my girl friends. Life would be close to normal any ways. Wrong! They gave Russell and I plane tickets to Shreveport, Louisiana and told us that all the Warrant Officer Candidates had to go through basic training at Ft. Polk. Shoot, I'd hardly been out of upstate New York before and I'd never been a plane either. So much for visiting my girlfriends on weekends. We said good by to our folks and off to Ft. Polk we went.