If you’ve been around the Ranch for any time and read the weekly flashes, you know I am writing a fiction serial about Michael, an Army veteran who lost both of his legs in an IED explosion in Iraq. I had him going about his day in a wheelchair by choice instead of using prosthetic legs. There have been multiple explanations as to why he chose the chair, but the truth is, I didn’t know an amputee I could interview to make sure I told the story correctly. That has changed. I recently spent two wonderful hours with Larry McKee, a Cold War/Vietnam-era Air Force vet and recent amputee due to health issues.

     A mutual friend introduced us. I owe her a big thank you. Funny thing, Larry got the idea I wanted to interview him because he was a vet, and I didn’t get the message that he was. As an ex-Air Force wife, I was fascinated when he started talking about his military years. He was thrilled I knew the terminology he used and where the bases were that he mentioned. It was probably forty minutes in that I said I wanted him to share with me the loss of his leg, the healing process, and learning to love his prosthetic leg. It looks real; just one type an amputee can choose. We had a good laugh about the mixed messages and eventually got on the same page. The time went quickly. I came away with information about his personal experience that he gave me permission to use as part of Michael’s story, and much more, a new friend. Who says research isn’t fun. 

     Larry joined the Air Force in 1963. After boot camp, he was assigned to Keesler AFB in Mississippi to study to be an Air Traffic Controller. His duties in the control tower would include monitoring and directing aircraft movement on the ground and in the air, issuing landing and takeoff instructions to pilots, transferring control of departing flights to other traffic control centers, and accepting control of arriving flights. It’s an intense and exacting job. Unbeknownst to Larry, the Air Force had a more specific job for him to do. One which needed a top security clearance. So while he was at Keesler, a thorough investigation into his life and psyche was happening in his hometown of Elmira, New York.     

     The military investigators interviewed his family, neighbors, and friends. They weren’t asking what Larry’s favorite colors and subjects in school were. They asked tough personal questions like; was he mean to animals, did he show signs of being aggressive when angry, was he honest, did he care about his fellow man, could he keep secrets, what was his personal hygiene like, and was he “kinky” in any way (any definition of kinky was included.) They looked into how he handled money, whether his family was in debt, if he had any family or friends in prison, or living in a foreign country, or if he had any traffic tickets. They even looked back a few years into the stability of his extended family. The process was intrusive and unnerving to the ones being interviewed.     

     Larry soon found himself stationed on the small island of St. Lawrence in the Bering Sea, southwest of Nome, Alaska. The now-closed NORAD (North American Air Defense Command) base of North East Cape, Alaska, was only 21 miles from the eastern border of Russia. He and 39 other Air Force members lived amidst the Alaskan native people, reindeer, and polar bears for a year, then they were transferred out, and another group came in. This was during the time we call the Cold War. Their job was to watch radar screens for any signs of foreign invasion by air. There was never an invasion, but what is known as posturing occured. Russian planes would fly into American or Canadian air space, and American fighters would be dispatched to gently but firmly escort them back into their own air space. It was a cat and mouse game.     

     One of the things Larry remembers vividly about living on the small island was how dangerous it was to get hurt. They did have a medic and nurse with them, but any need for a doctor or trauma team caused big problems because the injured person would have to be flown the 137 miles to Nome for any advanced care. The weather and temperatures made getting there in a timely manner questionable at best.

     Larry’s next assignment was at Dover AFB in Delaware. Now up in the control tower, in better weather, his view was very different. Military planes of all sizes and shapes took off and landed every day. The ones he remembers best were the ones bringing home flag-covered caskets from Vietnam. Any fallen US soldier returns to the US through Dover, and between 1964 and 1966, there were over 1,500 of them. That’s a lot of times to witness a dignified transfer. The visual, lack of sound except for the footfalls of the honor guard carrying the casket, and understanding the sacrifice the member has made never leave your thoughts. 

The link below shows a dignified transfer.

     I had read about the hours the honor guard practices to be able to walk in unison. Why would that be difficult? Because each person’s step is different, tall people have to decrease their step length and shorter people have to elongate theirs. It’s not as easy as they make it look to get the timing perfect. Larry explained there is also a timed cadence to closing the hearse door, which I didn’t know.

     Dignity was the word Larry repeated. Live your life with dignity. Treat others with dignity. Help anyone you can maintain their dignity, and you can handle this thing we call life. He also wanted to stress that if it weren’t for the sacrifices of our military members, the United States would not be the country that it is. A little mixed up at the moment, but still the country he loves. I couldn’t agree more.

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     I’m hoping you’ve never had a loved one come home in a flag-draped casket. If you have, I offer my condolences. And perhaps you’ve not heard of NORAD and their function in protecting the US, but I’ll wager you have heard of the NORAD Santa Tracker. Each year, the NORAD Tracks Santa Web Site receives nearly fifteen million unique visitors from more than 200 countries and territories around the world. Volunteers receive more than 130,000 calls to the NORAD Tracks Santa hotline from children around the globe. If someone in your family has made one of those calls please tell us about it in the comments, and share any other thoughts too.

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     In preparation to post this column, I revisited Larry so he could proofread it, and I took my husband, Bob, with me. The two men had been born in the same town 65 miles south of where we now live. Within minutes they figured out that Bob knew a bunch of Larry’s first cousins and had their numbers in his phone. Because of multiple changes in Larry’s life he had lost the contact information. Texts, photos and calls on speaker ensued. We stayed more than an hour enjoying the happy, reconnecting, “what are the odds” afternoon. All the result of research and networking.

Larry McKee and Sue Spitulnik

Larry McKee and Sue Spitulnik

     Sue Spitulnik is an ex-Air Force wife who stays connected to the military/veteran community through her membership in the Rochester (NY) Veterans Writing Group. The group has published an anthology of their military experiences, United in Service, United in Sacrifice, available on Amazon. She also belongs to the Lilac City Rochester Writers. Quilting fills some of her time as does her family. If you would like to contact her directly you can do so at sue222spitulnik@gmail.com.


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