Fall 1966. We were in our last two weeks of pilot training and barring any major screw ups on our part, we had completed the nearly year long Army helicopter pilot training program. We would get our wings and soon be declared “officers and gentlemen.”
As part of these last weeks' training was an Escape and Evasion scenario. We knew it was coming and I, for one, was looking forward to the exercise. It officially marked our last major exercise as a flight class.
We were to be bused to an obscure site on large acreage for this exercise. Map reading, escaping and evading a cadre of instructors following us and using as much of what we had been taught, in a real world exercise.
We awoke early on “the day” and were kept busy. No time for anything but training. No breakfast and no lunch and no opportunity to go the PX and put a few candy bars in our pockets.
The call came to pack our gear and board the bus. We had all the (minimal) basics. This was mirrored after a real time E&E - just go with what is on your back.
The bus dropped us off after nearly an hour of driving. Pulled off a back road in the woods surrounded by hills and valleys. We all had our given responsibilities. Point man, security, navigation and a time line to adhere to. We were to make it to point “X” on the map w/o being captured by 08:00 the next morning, or be lost to the enemy forever. We were motivated!
Last problem to solve. How to feed a dozen hungry men that night when camp was set? Our last “gift” from the departing bus was an onion, two large potatoes, celery and carrots and a live chicken. The vegetables were given to various members for safe keeping and the chicken was given to Mike, a close friend. His instructions were to take care of the chicken and keep it quiet. We were being followed after all. Mike tucked the chicken between his Army coat and vest so that only the chicken's head could be seen. Off we went.
I remember we worked well as a team that exercise. Strict adherence to the jobs associated with the mission at hand. We applied much of what we had been taught with success.
Night fell and we climbed to high ground. Set up camp, posted guards and were assigned our rotating shifts. We were all hungry and knew that chicken soup was as good as it was going to get. Vegetables were prepared and all looked to Mike to prepare the chicken. He could not!! He had bonded with the chicken. The chicken had become a team player having kept quiet. Mike had done his job too keeping the chicken warm and comfortable. I remember looking back a few times during the days march to see Mike with the chicken head peaking out of the front of his jacket. Seemed odd and out of place. But all of this mirrored what we might be able to pick up on a cross country escape route.
I think we were privy to Mikes plight. We understood but the good of the order prevailed and another team member took the chicken Mike offered up. Said chicken was quickly dispatched. My heart still sinks at that brief moment of chicken turning circles in the air and Mike walking away. It was what it was; nothing more, nothing less.
Several hours later our canteen cups were filled with thin chicken broth, a chunk of chicken and a vegetable or two. The chicken did indeed feed all of us except for Mike. He could not bring himself to the table.
And that was it. We made it to our rendezvous point and were checked off as having passed the E&E course. Covered in hours and miles of Alabama hills, we were bused back to base.
Two weeks later with wings on our chests and bars on our shoulders, we headed home before going to Vietnam. Mike lived in Denver and I in the Pacific North West. Mike was driving a Jaguar and I a 1963 red Corvette. I do not remember beyond this story having talked with Mike about that moment but if I still remember it, I am sure that he does too.