Anyone seeking to do an autobiographical sketch of one’s life cannot help but discover the convenience of breaking the passage of time down into bite-size chunks – or “chapters.” In doing this it may come as a surprise to find that some of those significant course changes worthy of a time mark may not become historically visible until a certain number of years have flown by. Our perspectives change with the passage of time and the maturing of our outlook and sense of self-awareness; just one of many reasons why I believe any meaningful personal history is a continuous project and is never really “almost done.”
In 1953 for instance, there was an extraordinary confluence of events in my life – perhaps more life-changing than I was even capable of comprehending at the time but which are emotionally exhausting even to think about now, so many years after. A year in a combat zone where gunfire, death and dying had been seen, and smelled, and heard and felt, and where young men died every day; where I lived in a canvas tent with ten other men (most of us still “boys” in our teens) had just suddenly come to an end. I was alive but I was somehow different.
In 17 hours flying time I was back home in the U.S.A..There were no bugles and marching bands; no thank you’s and well done’s as there had been with our older brothers. The “cool” thing was to shut up and not say anything about the 39,000 dead, 8000 M.I.A. and thousands of guys with missing parts and scarred souls. (We didn’t even talk about it with each other – for about 40 years.)
Two weeks after getting home I was married and off to a new life in the “peace-time” Air Force, 3,000 miles from home, in a strange civilian world where I didn’t know how to fit in; a young wife, a home to fill, groceries to buy and bills to pay and my first car to fix and keep in gasoline. Even scarier, I was now a senior non-commissioned officer in need of fitting into an established, rather complicated and highly structured military society, living “off-base” in the midst of but not a part of a civilian community; no more familiar barracks life, mess hall dining and fixed routine.
While checking into my new base on day one, my welcoming experience was to be braced and chewed up one side and down the other for wearing an “illegal” shoulder patch, by the biggest, meanest Master Sergeant I had ever met. His name was Mike Rathsack, and he is the subject of this story.
My stateside assignment was to the 529th Air Police Section at Paine A.F.B. near Everett, Washington, and the last stop on my list of things to do that day was to sign in at A.P. headquarters. When I reported to my new boss – the Provost Sergeant – there was 6 foot 6 inches tall, square-jawed Master Sergeant Sterling (Mike) Rathsack sitting behind the big desk! I immediately saw my new career assignment going down-hill right there. I knew there was no way I was going to hit it off with this guy after such an illustrious first meeting on the base Main Street an hour earlier. The 5th Air Force patch on my left shoulder weighed 5 pounds and seemed illuminated in neon. I never could have guessed in those moments that this rough-as-a-cob WWII veteran was about to become one of those “giants” that bless our lives at times of special need.
Within a month, I was called before a promotion board, and found myself assigned as “Operations Sergeant” – essentially “number two” to the Provost Sergeant himself – and a regular companion to a father-like figure who saw something in me I was too immature to appreciate. Off base, the Rathsak family adopted us and soon found us a better living space in a duplex house close to their own in the ferry town of Mukilteo; an old house which we shared with the friendly Coast Guard couple manning the nearby lighthouse. Suddenly, we were part of an expanding “family-away-from-home” and able to concentrate on our new marriage and new life together. Mike taught me how to fish the northwestern lakes for crappie, and the harbor for salmon, and I soon had a new Labrador Retriever to run with his Springer Spaniel (a rather full boat load!)
Looking across the landscape of a lifetime, I recognize Master Sgt. Mike Rathsak as a Tall Giant!