At the funeral service for a friend recently, one of the speakers, obviously referencing birth and death, mentioned them as singular to a human life in that they are events that only happen once. Intrigued by the thought I quickly scribbled a note on one of the index cards always carried on my person. Without arguing the question from an ecclesiastical standpoint, I began to expand the notion on a broader range of possibilities. I quickly decided that some caveats had to be allowed in my search, since - for one thing - some events that are one-time experiences may not necessarily seem so at the time they occur; and then too, it is only with the passage of time that others might become obvious to us. So I started a list of events in my own life:
It was a blue-sky summer day; in fact it was July 10, 1956 when after making a number of “touch-and-go” landings in Piper PA-11, tail number 4680M, my instructor told me to pull off at the side of the inactive runway at Vermont’s Barre-Montpelier Airport, opened the side door and stepped out. Almost casually he said: “Take off, make two circuits around the pattern, then execute a normal base leg, turn on final, land on the numbers and taxi back to pick me up. I’ll be waiting right here. Oh, and by the way keep your eyes open for that Northeast DC-3; he tends to make a very low straight- in approach like he’s the only guy out there.”
Not only had I not been told that this was going to happen, but worse yet, Roger sat down, looking not at me and the Piper, but in an opposite direction. He didn’t appear to even care! But in minutes I was in the air, with the plane 200 pounds lighter than I was accustomed to and trimmed for, but Holy Cow! I was on my own. Left hand on the throttle, feet on the rudder pedals, just right, the stick in my right hand- small gentle movements; set the trim tabs, ease off the carburetor heat, hold at 800 feet. PURE DELIGHT! the sound of that Continental engine sweet as a dream. Twenty five minutes later, I parked, proudly next to my instructor, still acting like he knew I would be okay, although I’m sure he was as worried as a mother cow the whole time. According to my flight log I was gone only 35 minutes. But it was an experience that could only happen once. No matter how many different planes I might ultimately pilot for a first time, there would never be another “first time”.
There was another, earlier July date scribbled on my pocket card during my friend’s funeral. One of the most serious battles of the whole Korean War had broken out that July of 1953, and two Chinese Divisions were about to break through the lines held by General Arthur Trudeau’s 7th Infantry Division on Pork Chop Hill. I was with the farthest-north Air Force unit guiding close-air ground support at the time, and I was at an automatic weapons outpost when a runner told me to report to Colonel Lenton Roller’s tent ASAP.
“Sergeant Cooper, according to your records you are a blood type “O” I think and you’re also the senior NCO on base at the moment. I want you to get a jeep and scare up as many others with that blood type as you can fit and head back to the MASH hospital at Uijeongbu. They’re in big trouble there, with more casualties than they can handle and they’re all out of plasma.
1950 - 1953 Korea
An hour later I found myself lying on the ground in the triage area and watching my blood run through a tube and into the arm of a young soldier who was as white as a ghost. Then my eyes settled on a nearby Marine corporal, gently rocking his dying buddy in his arms and singing to him “‘Til I waltz Again With You”. Later, as I worked unloading and carrying wounded from helicopters landing, one after another in the LZ, I heard someone playing Taps on a harmonica. It was the Marine, now alone and honoring his friend, while tears ran down his face. Later, I put my arms around a young surgeon still dressed in his red-stained greens, stunned to tears by what he and his medics were trying to deal with.
For a 20 year-old farm boy from Vermont, it was a day filled with honor, a day of unbounded
love, and an event that will never happen again but will be with me for the rest of my life.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
S/Sgt. Todd Labraico funeral, 2013 - New York National Guard Photo