In 1967 I found myself getting ready to graduate from the Naval Aviation Training Command in Pensacola Florida as a Marine Naval Aviator. I say getting ready, as I almost didn’t graduate. It seems that the escalating Vietnam war needed me in the cockpit more that my Commanding Officer wanted me out of the program. A lot of my troubles were caused by cars, …the rest by my relentless pursuit of women and parties. (I should mention that girls from all over the southeast would travel to Pensacola hoping to snag an eligible bachelor officer – Remember the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman?”)
At this time the Navy was graduating about 50 Naval Aviators (Marines and Navy), a week. After graduating from Pensacola with their pilot wings, pilots went to different bases for advanced training in different aircraft. The choke point was Pensacola, and it was there that about 100 car dealers set up shop. The way the dealers lured customers, was to allow the potential customers to borrow a car for the weekend, so they could test it. Flight school was about 15 months long, so I got a chance to test drive, for the entire weekend, a dozen or more different cars (The first 6 months were intense training and we didn’t get out much). The trick was not to go back to the same dealership twice –unless you were going to actually buy the car then.
I was part of the Cadet program where, if you qualified, you could join after high school instead of having to graduate from college to be eligible. I guess in 1965 you could not get enough college grads to want to go to Vietnam and since I had obviously been living in a cloud, in Europe, before joining, I didn’t know we were getting involved in a war in Southeast Asia.
As a recent high school graduate I didn’t dream of owning a new car, specially since my salary in 1967 as a cadet was under couple of hundred dollars a month. However the dealers knew we could not run away, so they had a program that Cadets could buy any car for $50 a month. Once we graduated, as a pilot and an officer, the payment would increase to include lost interest etc. Because we would be in Vietnam soon after graduation we were not too concerned about future payments – after all, maybe we would get killed and then we were off the hook.
So midway through the program I bought myself a ’67 light blue MGB. The feeling of owning your first car was hard to describe. I was grown up, free, and with nothing but adventure ahead. It was intoxicating.
I loved my MGB. In the evenings after finishing my classes and flying, I would jump in the car, take the tonneau off, and drive across Pensacola Bay Bridge and cruise down to the beach with my radio blaring. I was on top of the world.
Mardi Gras in 1967 came in early February. I had heard about the crazy parties everywhere, so I made plans to meet up with some other pilots on Bourbon Street. The drive over was uneventful. Once I got into downtown New Orleans, the traffic, cars and pedestrians, was overwhelming. Not being very bright, I decided to drive down Bourbon Street to see what I could dig up. Traffic was ‘slow-walking-pace’ so I joined the throngs and soon had people sitting on the car, fenders, hood, anyplace they wanted. People would offer me to drink from their bottles as they walked by, which I was happy to accept. A few revellers on a balcony shook up a bottle of Champagne and squirted it all over us. Soon people started pouring wine and beer all over the car. The floorboards had one or two inches of alcohol sloshing around. The smell of cheap liquor and a burning clutch soon became overpowering. Fortunately, I arrived at the end of Bourbon Street and I set out to find a place to crash. A couple of blocks down on Esplanade Ave I saw the most beautiful woman in New Orleans going in the opposite direction in a Mustang convertible. I was going to follow her and declare my undying love, and hope she had a cool place to live.
My reverie came to a crashing halt when I ran into the rear end of the car in front of me, which had stopped at a red light. FUCK! I got out the of the car and met with the nasty old lady who had started screaming at me even before she exited her old battlewagon. Fortunately we were crawling at under 5 mph, so there was no damage to her vehicle. However, her bumper bent my hood, exactly where the latch was, so I could not close the hood. I took a wire hangar from my trunk and used it to secure the hood from popping open. By this time my dream woman in the Mustang was long gone, so I set out to get a place to crash.
The rest of the day and night folded into a liquid nightmare. I had vague memories of going from party to bar and back, all night long. Finally I decided I was sober enough to venture back to the base. The early drive on I-10 was refreshing and started to clear my head. The wind at 80 mph felt great. After a few miles I leaned sideways so I could reach the heater vent (behind the radio) as I was getting a bit cold.
BANG! The hood had exploded loose from the wire hangar, and slammed back over the windshield. If I had not been bent over, trying to turn the heater on, it would have slammed and crashed into my skull. I managed to stop the car and pulled on to the side of the Interstate. I surveyed the damage and realised that I could not close the hood since it was L-shaped as it bent over the windscreen. I also could not drive in this condition. I looked around for some tools to repair, or at least be able to close the hood, and all I had on hand was the hammer to knock of the hubs on my wire wheels. I figured I could explain this later to the insurance company, and I set out to hammer the hood back into a shape so that would not act like a sail. Eventually I stepped back and surveyed the damage. I had hammered it back and now it was covered with about 100 2” dents, but seemed workable. I took my last wire hangar and tied the hood to the bumper again and set course back to the base. A little slower this time.
When the USAA inspector came to inspect the car, he was incredulous. I explained that the accident could have been much worse, and that my quick thinking saved the insurance company from a much larger bill. He slowly shook his head and took a few pictures. A few days later the dealer replaced the hood and USAA paid for the entire bill.
I owned the MGB for about a year before I graduated. In that time I got about 28 speeding tickets. Things were different in those days. I had my Spanish driver’s license, and I would tell the police when they stopped me, that it was an official Spanish government license and they couldn’t take it away. They would write the ticket and I would toss it the next day. A couple of times I was called in to my CO’s office because he had received complaints from the local cops about my speeding everywhere.
Two things saved me from getting thrown out of the program. One is that a number of foreign pilots from South America were invited to participate in our flight program, and the CO needed me to be able to translate and converse with the foreign students. The only other thing that saved me was that they could not produce enough graduates to fill the pipeline of pilots needed for the rapidly escalating war in Vietnam.
I know the specs state that the MGB barely made it over 100 mph, but I swear my speedo often read 120 driving home on I-10. In my mind, I was already a fighter pilot strafing and dog-fighting the cars on the interstate. I would climb up their 6, squeeze a few rounds from my wing mounted 50’s into their gas tank, and then draft around them looking for another victim. And all this, when I was sober.
On every graduation day there is a small ceremony at the O’Club, where the barman fills a cocktail glass to the brim with a shot of everything he can find behind the bar. The recently graduated pilots would take their wings off and drop them in their drink. Then pick up the drink and drink it in less than 10 seconds without taking a breath and/or swallowing the wings. I think the record was about 7 seconds, and we all tried to beat it. Behind the bar, nailed to the wall, was a chest X-Ray of somebody’s lungs and esophagus, with a set of wings stuck in the esophagus, almost where they would be on your chest, as a reminder not to unclench your jaw.
That evening, after the ceremony, I found the Commanding Officer’s secretary chatting at the bar with half a dozen new pilots resplendent in their white uniforms with their shinny new gold wings over their left breast. I was going to knock the six of them out of the sky and save the maiden in distress. The dozen shots injected during the “ceremony” gave me the courage to take the lady in question by the hand and find an empty pool room to have a quiet private chat with her. Fifteen minutes later, the door to our sanctuary burst open and the CO stood there glaring.
“God damn it Lieutenant! My secretary is off limits! Everybody knows that!”
“Yes Sir! That was while we were in flight school. I graduated today. I didn’t think that applied any longer.” I stammered, while tucking my uniform in.
“I fought to fight to keep you in the program. Most of the senior officers in the base felt that you were not “Officer and a Gentleman” material. I knew you could not be trusted in the tradition of the Naval Service. However, the unquenchable thirst for new pilots for Vietnam has won over common sense.”
One of the other stupid things I did that night, was bet another pilot that I could drive from one town to another riding on the railroad tracks. Stories of student pilots flying low on the railroad tracks at night toward moving trains, and then suddenly turning on their landing lights for 10 seconds, and then turning them off before flying over the locomotive and causing the train to slam on their brakes to avoid hitting what they thought was an oncoming train, probably contributed to our foolish wager. I won the bet, but the other pilot passed out somewhere and I never collected. I mention this because the MGB was indestructible. I don’t know how we made it. We got onto the tracks at a railroad crossing in one town, and drove on the the railroad ties with the rails between our tires bouncing like mad. The trick was to drive as fast as possible, so you didn’t hit the troughs – then you didn’t bounce as much. You really had to be there.
My next stop was New River Marine Corps Air Station, North Carolina to join HMM-365, a helicopter squadron, getting ready to deploy on a Caribean Cruise. However, I had a couple of weeks before I had to report in, so I decided to drive up to Montreal for the Expo. I had fun, the MGB drove flawlessly, and I didn’t fall in love, although I tried very hard. On the way back, Brown Eyed Girl, was blaring from the radio. It was time to go to war.
One day one of the Marines in my squadron asked me if I wanted to go to Atlanta for the weekend. It seems he had a girlfriend there and he was worried that if he didn’t go over on the weekends he might lose her. I agreed, and the drive down was uneventful; the return not so. A massive cold front had moved in and the entire East Coast was affected. At least 100 miles of tractor trailers were parked on the side of the Interstate. There was a sheet of black ice covering the entire Interstate from Georgia to North Carolina. We had to find a way of getting back in time for muster. My new CO and I already did not like each other. I couldn’t afford give him more reasons to nail me to the cross.
At the next gas station we stopped to buy chains. The problem was, that they had chains for trucks, but not for an MGB. Improvise, improvise, improvise — we had been drilled over and over. So I did, I bought a set of truck chains and tried to wire the loose ends to each other. A quick shake to verify they were on, and we were off. In no time the loose ends came loose and a crazy rattle came from the rear wheel wells. We were running late, so couldn’t stop to check.
What I saw at the next gas stop freaked me out. The loose chains after beating against the inside of the wheel wells had punched through the sheet metal of the quarter panel on both sides in a number of places. My insurance company was not going to believe this. I didn’t think the same excuse, that I was actually saving them money, was going to work this time.
Fortunately my friend, who lured me to Atlanta, was so impressed with the MGB’s performance, he offered to buy it as is. The sound really helped. The salt on the roads had corroded the exhaust pipes and muffler, so when I backed off the gas, it would backfire like crazy. It sounded really cool then. Somehow I also managed to convince him to take over payments. I also had to talk to his priest since the the kid was not old enough to sign for himself, and he needed a guarantor.
Then a few weeks later I went off to war. I really hoped Karma didn’t follow me over.