by Ken Capn Skyp Babbs

When I got the announcement of the reunion of my old helicopter squadron I didn't realize it was a bigger deal than just HMM 163 from the years 1961-63. This was the semi-annual Pop A Smoke convention of The Marine Corps Helicopter Association. All the Marine chopper pilots ever. Our squadron was one of many, but the only one that has its separate get together. We were and are unique in that we were together for three years. After that squadrons formed and reformed on a more piecemeal basis.

Shu Fly was the code name for the Marine helicopter operations in Vietnam when we were there. After the war built up and numerous other units were sent in the name Shu Fly was dropped.

I'd never attended one of these reunions before because they were always too far away. But Reno I could drive to so I decided to go. Plus I wanted to see everyone before the ranks got too thin. All I knew was I had to be at the Santa Fe Hotel on Lake Street at five thirty PM on Friday, July 9.

440 miles. That's out of the H-34 helicopter range. The old workhorse would have to make a refueling stop. I had the car rigged like the cockpit with radios, altimeter, range finder, throttle, cruise control; running slick, no guns.

TOD, 1640 hours, 8 July, 04, weather CAVU, eastbound over the Willamette pass, climbing to five thousand feet, full tank and loaded -- with supplies: coffee, percolator, milk, sugar, side of ribs barbecued, chest of ice, two bottles of wine Rogue Red, loaf of pugliese, cheddar sharp and smoked; pop up tent, sleeping bag and foam pad; foldup soccer mom canvas chair.

Running free. Contact highway 58 departure control, leaving your frequency, piss stop at Chiloquin side road, shady rest break out chair bread cheese wine study flight manuals and maps and snooze till temp drops; fire up engine engage rotors highway 97 approach control this is Yankee Poppa Sixer Deucer turning to one eighter zero Klamath Falls next check in.

Klamath Lake lay across the right side like a big gray whale basking at the foot of the snow covered cascades, snout munching the grass at the northern tip, tail slapping the amtrack moaning through K Falls. The deepening dusk drew out the neon colors beckoning weary travelers to 30 dollar motel deals and two dollar a gallon econo gas fillups. No joy on the motel, too many miles to go. A full tank later departure control vectored me onto highway 38 south, California border, Modoc National Forest, Captain Jack's hideout, Chief Joseph's flight to Canada-- I will fight no more forever.

I checked the palm pilot, the war's not over; David Walker, 28, was arguing with a friend at a pub when he went home to get his sawed-off shotgun, which he put in his trousers. As he walked back to the pub, the gun went off. Song pounding in the speakers: I fought the law and the law won. An owl flashed across the windshield. Eyes turned to mine. Inside the pupils were lava rocks, water pools, star sparkles. Time to turn in.

The sign caught my eye just as it flashed by on the sly and I reared to a stop and wheeled to the right and skidded down a dirt road to a simple campsite gouged into the woods and under headlit glare popped up the tent, flung in the pad and sleeping bag, turned off the lights and plunked the old bod down into a tossing and turning sleep fighting the hip bones laments until a fly buzzing outside the window screen woke me up.


Day Two.

Bright sun, water splash the face, pack up and head out ten miles down the road to the Canby Hotel Bar and Cafe for coffee and eggs. In Oregon the speed limit was 55 but soon as you cross the state line into California it jumps to 65 and the pace picks up. In Alturas I hit route 395 and haul ass to Reno, western vistas spreading ahead like a painting of dry washes, long outcroppings of hills and the highway a distant line winding around a wide curve. Horses run free, graze alongside the Susan River.

Switch to Nevada approach control, stopping at the state line at a picnic table under the trees for cold barbecued ribs and a bottle of wine and say hay this is a popular place under the poplars and that isn't a coffee kiosk standing alongside, it is a barbecue rib stand, shall we compare sauces?

No time for that. Reno lurks. High rises on the skyline. Hotel casinos all in one grab-bag, cheap rooms, five dollar chips, you never have to leave the building.

Cruise the streets and locate the Santa Fe Hotel which isn't a hotel at all but a Basque Restaurant. A block away is the Oxford Motel, street level, park right outside the door, easy to haul the car crap into the room, establish instnat BOQ decor with clothes on hangers, duffel bag in the corner, coffee makings on the counter, quick shower and shave and ready to face the music. Time to kill so I wander across the stret where the Truckee River roars. Or at least, meanders. Right through the center of town. It makes the city sane if you know what I mean. There's a nice walkway along the river and on the other side total demolition as the dilapidated factories built alongside the railroad are torn down to make room for modern buildings, the city knowing now the riverfront property is the finest, so let's put up condos and clean businesses, technology centers and the like, with trees and benches and why not? Amenities are always nice.

And downtown the casinos flourish, a mere two blocks away, but can't have that damned railroad going right through the center of the action, distracting the bettors can we? No, by gar, we must tear out the tracks, build a tunnel and take the railroad underground. The city fathers have the loot, after all, the casinos pay taxes on all that money the pigeons lose in their quest for the big payoff, the jackpot, the score that will set them up for life. Yah, lotsa luck, suckers.

After moseying up and down the river trail I have juan beeg appetite so time to spruce the goose, get into the A uniform, suck in the gut, stick out the chest and walk on over to the evening soiree. Am I a bit trepiditious? You might say so. I haven't seen my squadron mates in 41 years. Will I still recognize everyone? Last seen we were mere lads engaged in arduous pursuits, now we are aged warriors. William Faulkner noted, once a pilot has been revved to the gills, senses keyed to the utmost, it's difficult to adjust to ordinary life.

I stepped through the door and entered the bar. The past met the present and roared into the future.

Bill McFall


Bill McFall, Bert Sandvoss, Bill Phillips

No surge of old buddies rushing forth to grab me in big bear hugs, pummel my back, stick drinks in my hand. More a sedate glancing about to see if I recognized anyone and everyone else glancing in my direction wondering who this interloper was for I see right away I am overdressed for the occasion. Only jacket in the place for everyone else is casual in shirts and hat free. I sidle up to the bar and order a gin and tonic and like in a western movie turn and lean against the bar and survey the room.

*********** ***********

Bill Waters, Dave Moore, Bob Bustos

Clusters of friends talking, finally one comes over. "As soon as I saw that coat and hat I knew it had to be Ken Babbs." Austin Bates, the organizer of the squadron reunion. Unlike me, he had a name tag, compliments of the parent group, the Marine Corps Helicopter Association. That made it easy. Everyone had their name tags so I was able to put the names and faces together with the four decades of memories and soon I was making the rounds, getting reacquainted and I quickly offed the coat and hat as we compared notes on what the passing years had wrought.