Don't Wait for MebyBenLong©
"What's that?" he asked as I turned the phone back off to save the battery and clipped the holster to my belt.
"My Blackberry, but there's no cell service right here, I'm going to have to climb back up the mountain until I can get hold of someone." I watched his eyes follow my hand as I started to put the phone back into its holster.
"A Black Berry? What's that?"
"You know; a cell phone?" I answered, looking at the phone in my hand, and then for some reason held it out for him to see.
He took it in his hand, holding it in front of him as if he'd never seen one before, flipping it over back and forth before saying, "It works without wires? Like a radio?"
"Exactly." It was just another strange question in a very strange situation. He handed back the phone and I realized I should have left it on. Pushing the button, it began to boot up.
"I suppose if I'm going to call for help, I should tell them who you are?" I questioned.
"It might help, huh? " He answered. "Sgt. Jimmy Fallon, US Army." My Blackberry had just finished booting; I thumbed up the memo pad before continuing.
"Sargent Jimmy Fallon, USARMY" I typed into the memo pad as I repeated it aloud. I saw him through my peripheral vision doing something, as I looked back he'd pulled a small chain with two dog tags from around his neck, handing them to me. Taking them, I read the data encrypted on them, transferring it all to my memo pad.
"Why don't you take one," he questioned, "that way you know you've got it right."
"Got it right here," I said, holding the blackberry up to signify I'd copied it down. He'd expertly broken open the chain link, sliding one of the tags off before handing it to me. I took the tag anyway, and held the Blackberry out for him. He took it, but the screen had gone dark.
"It's all black," he said.
"Just touch a button," I answered. He did, and immediately dropped the blackberry.
"How does it do that?"
"Do what?" I asked, not understanding his question.
"Go black, and then show up when I touch it? How does it know?"
"It's just going into battery save mode; it turns the screen off after a certain time, but any key activates it again. Haven't you ever seen a Blackberry before?" He shook his head no. I shrugged.
Crawling back out from under the wing, I looked at the sky and at my watch. Already nearly 2 pm, I'd been all morning getting to this point, and had a long way to go before I could get Sargent Jimmy Fallon, US Army, some help.
I untied my ground pad and sleeping bag, unrolled them and crawled back under the wing.
"Jimmy, I'm going to have to hike out to get help, and it's not likely that I'll be back before dark. I'm going to leave you my sleeping bag and pad, it'll make you a bit more comfortable. Can you handle that?"
"I think so."
"Ok, Good. This is the pad," I said, pulling it up beside us. "If you can roll over onto your side, I can slide this under you and get you off the ground. I don't think we'll be able to get you in the sleeping bag, so we'll just use that like a blanket, but you should be a bit warmer than last night, Ok?' His nod confirmed that he understood, and taking my hand he rolled himself toward me. On his side I slid the thinsulate underneath him, he rolled back down. He hadn't said a thing, but the sweat beads on his forehead let me know that it had hurt like the dickens.
"How are you doing right now, are you cold?"
"No. It was pretty cold at night, but once the sun comes out in the mornings it warms up pretty good."
"Ok, then I'll just leave the sleeping bag, and you can pull it over you when it starts getting cold?" His nod confirmed that he agreed. I turned to figure out what else I could leave him, when I realized I hadn't even offered him any food.
"Jimmy, have you had anything to eat? When was the last time you had food?"
"Three days. Had breakfast the day I crashed."
"Three days? You didn't crash yesterday in the storm?"
"No, it was in the storm three days ago, on the 18th."
I shook my head. "There wasn't any storm three days ago, yesterday was the first in a couple of weeks."
"Maybe where you were. Yesterday was the worst since the day I crashed, but it's rained every afternoon."
I just looked at him -- nothing about this was making sense.
"Maybe I ought to have you tell me what happened -- from the beginning."
He looked at me, obviously in thought, and then nodded. "Training flight. We left Oroville just after 11 hundred hours. We were supposed to make practice strafing runs at the bombing range and then return. Bishop was the alternate in case of trouble; I had engine trouble. I diverted to Bishop, but ran into weather." He paused occasionally during the disjointed description of his accident, obviously fighting the pain. "The lightning was pretty bad, it kept throwing the NDB around, and I couldn't get a good fix. I missed the base, when I finally got a fix, I was already past it, and had to make a 180. I made the turn, but ran out of fuel. I thought for sure I was going to smack a mountain, but as I let down, I came out of the clouds. I thought I was going to have enough altitude to clear the ridge, but all of a sudden it was like I hit a brick wall. I was still flying, just wasn't going anywhere and I knew I didn't have enough altitude to clear the mountains." I knew what an NDB was, an obsolete navigation device that homed on AM radio stations and was affected by lightning, but I can't say as I've even seen a modern airplane that still has one installed.
"Sounds like you got caught in a microburst," I interjected.
He looked at me puzzled, and said, "A what?"
"Microburst. A downdraft out of a thunderstorm has to go somewhere. When it hits the ground it goes out in all directions. If you're flying through it, suddenly the wind changes directions and you're toast."
He shook his head. "Never heard of that, but makes sense." He didn't dwell on it, continuing his story. "I saw this valley; it looked like my best shot. I clipped the tree at the far end of the lake, cartwheeled once and came to rest where it is now. That was three days ago. I pulled myself out of the cockpit and crawled under here, but that was as far as I made it. I'm pretty sure that was three days ago."
I nodded in affirmation; the 18th was indeed three days ago. But the rest of it made absolutely no sense. Training run? Bishop as an alternate? He spoke as if these were military bases, but neither location had been a military base -- for over half a century. At least running out of fuel made sense; that explained the lack of fumes or spilled fuel around the plane. I typed what he'd said into the Blackberry, just so I didn't get it wrong, and decided it would do no good to argue with him. He'd obviously hit his head -- although it was beginning to feel like I'd hit mine. Instead I pulled my backpack under the wing of the plane, showed him my small propane stove, refilled my water bottles for him and showed him my dehydrated food. Taking the flashlight and my small collapsible water bottle, I told Jim I'd be back with help as soon as I could. I'd just taken my first step, when a sharp "Terry!" brought me to a halt.
"I need you to do me a favor."
"Anything." I figured he meant for me to move his pillow or reset the sleeping bag, but it was more personal.
"I need you to tell my Lizzie that I love her."
"Ok, I can do that. How will I find her?'
"She should be in the phone book. Lizzie Warshawski. She lives with her father in Oroville. I don't know the address."
"Ok, I can look her up, but you can tell her yourself as soon as we get you out of here. " He just looked at me, a look that I've never seen anywhere before, but I recognized it immediately for what it was, the look of death. Jimmy Fallon didn't expect to live.
"Jimmy, we're going to get you out of here, probably first thing in the morning. I'll call Edwards, they'll surely have a helicopter that can be here in nothing flat and we'll get you out of here."
Again he looked at me, but I could tell I hadn't gotten through to him. "Terry, Y'all sure do talk funny. I don't know who this Edward is, or what a hele.. hilla... whatever it is does, but I don't think I'm gonna make it. You're a good man Terry. Will you tell my Lizzie one more thing..., Don't wait for me?"
"Jim, I don't..."
He interrupted me, "Just tell her?"
"Ok, I'll tell her." I opened the memo pad once more, typed it in again, "Lizzie Warshawski, w/ Father, Oroville. Tell her don't wait."
"I'll be back, Jimmy,"
"I know you will."
I turned, surveying the valley once more, looking for another way out other than how I'd come in. To the southeast once again dark thunderclouds were beginning to loom their ugly heads over the mountains. Surrounded in all quadrants by high, virtually impassable cliffs, I confirmed the way I'd come in had to be my most assured way out, and headed back up the steep rocky slope.
Without my pack, my jacket tied around my waist for later, the climbing up the cliff was much faster than it had been when I was coming down. I'm sure the thought of a man in need drove my legs, but still it was well over an hour before I could reach the slope where the hole that I'd come in from had been. The blatantly obvious landmarks of the morning weren't so blatantly obvious with the sun on the other side of the mountains, the shadows beginning to fall over the hill, changing the look of everything. It was only by chance that I stumbled across my own footprints in one of the few soft dirt locations I'd come across and realized I was still about 50 yards too low on the mountain. Climbing the last little bit, suddenly everything became familiar and I ducked into the cave just as a large, quarter sized, raindrops began to fall.
I crawled back through the tunnel, only to find pelting rain again on the other side. It was too wet and slippery to travel on the rocks in the rain so I just holed up and waited, but not before trying the cell phone once more. Still no service, I turned it off and waited.
There's nothing worse than having an emergency and not being able to do anything about it. The need for speed is well tempered by the need for safety, but we're not raised to think that way. Emergency vehicles flash by us on overcrowded roads; fathers-to-be run stoplights on the way to hospitals with expectant mothers. Hero's rush into burning buildings to save crying youngsters -- but sometimes those hero's never come out, those fathers pull in front of oncoming traffic, the crowds of cars don't hear - or totally disregard blaring sirens and accidents, or just seem to slow things down when we want to be in a hurry. Today -- I waited. Thoughts of the lightning strike that had to have nearly killed me yesterday tempered my thoughts of slipping down wet rocks and breaking my own leg -- or perhaps my neck. I was impatient -- but I waited.
It was nearly two hours later, darkness rapidly overtaking the valley, before the rain let up. The dark cloud moving west over the mountains left clear skies over the late afternoon desert. I had nothing -- no food, no sleeping bag, and no water - with me; there was no holding back now. I started down the mountain. I got past the worst part, actually back onto the beaten path, before it got too dark to travel fast. Slowing in the darkness in the name of keeping my own neck intact, I continued to the edge of the section of cliff that once again gave me an open view of the Owens valley below. Trying my cell phone again, I was rewarded with two bars. Taking time to pull up my GPS and record the coordinates to go along with my physical description, I immediately dialed 911.
I had no trouble convincing the 911 operator that I'd found a crashed military plane with a pilot in dire straits. They immediately patched me in to military search and rescue at Edwards Air Force Base. But getting through, and convincing them there really was a crashed plane with a surviving pilot were two different things. They assured me there were no known missing military planes; the SAR satellite had been receiving no distress beacons, but would I please hold?
I did, and found myself soon talking with someone else, who then passed me to a Captain something or other. I'd repeated the information about Sargent Jimmy Fallon, US Army, five times when the latest Captain told me to hold on for a moment, putting his hand over the phone. I could hear conversation but not what was being said, until he came back one more time. "Ok, Terry. I've got a little news here that corroborates part of your story. Tell me one more time, exactly where you are, and exactly where this plane is." I repeated everything one more time, followed by him asking me if I could stay exactly where I was. I told him I was standing on a cliff, two miles from my car, with no sleeping bag, no pack, no food, and that no -- I was going to go to my car. I told him exactly where it was and he said they'd have the sheriff meet me there. I was about to hang up when it dawned on me he hadn't told me anything about the corroborating evidence. I asked him if he could tell me what they'd found out, but he didn't answer at first, the phone was just quiet.
"You said that Jimmy Fallon is alive, and waiting to be rescued?"
"That's correct," I replied, exasperated at repeating myself for the umpteenth time.
It was quiet for just a moment, I was about to ask again when he slowly and distinctly said "We actually traced it through the plane identification first, then matched his information through MIA registry. Sgt. Jimmy Fallon disappeared in a P-51 on a training flight out of the Oroville Army Air Corp Field on August 18th, 1942, sixty-nine years ago."
The sheriff was waiting at my car when I got there; he took me down to Independence where he dropped me off at a hotel in town. Exhausted, I fell into bed. Another Sheriff picked me up at 5 am; we got donuts and coffee before we went over to the airfield. The Air Force Search and Rescue helicopter landed at 5:45, and the next hour was spent repeating what I'd said the night before to a Major, who was in charge, and to a recording where it was obvious they were trying to catch me in some kind of change to the story. A few minutes were spent going over maps, pinpointing the best guess of the coordinates of the crash site, describing what I'd seen. They left about 7:20, returning for fuel nearly two hours later -- having found nothing. Another two hour search without me followed, and again they found nothing. They refueled again, someone delivered sandwiches for lunch, and this time they finally agreed to take me along. Setting me up with a helmet and a few brief safety instructions, we headed back up the mountain.
We followed the valley up, turned right, and crossing the ridge -- found nothing. It didn't look like what I'd seen the previous day; no lake, no meadow, no trees -- no plane. But they'd traveled fairly fast, so I had them circle back over the ridge and tried again. I found the main trail, spotted the area where I'd headed cross country, eventually finding the ledge where I'd been hit by lightning. Much closer to the top of the ridge than I'd thought, it was easy to pick out exactly where I would have come out and looked down on the lake and trees and meadow that I could so easily see in my mind's eye.
But it wasn't there.
"This is the ridge," I told them, pointing everything out, "and I would have come out just about there. I know this sounds crazy, but yesterday there was a lake and pine trees and this valley looked totally different." I could tell that no one believed me, but still I persisted. "Can we take it down lower; I know this is the valley." Suddenly it dawned on me, how could I have forgotten? I'd spent so much time just repeating what to them was an unbelievable story that they'd never asked, and I'd never thought of the other things. Reaching into my pocket, I shouted "Look, I completely forgot -- he gave me one of his dog tags, and I completely forgot -- I took pictures."
I handed the dog tag over to the Major, who looked at it, flipped it over and then handed it to the guy next to him as I unlocked my cell and flipped it over to the photos. "My kids get these every year at the county fair." My mouth dropped open; everything I said or did seemed to be doing the opposite of what I wanted, almost making sure that no one believed me. I glanced back down at the phone, pulling up the pictures of the plane.
"That didn't come from a county fair. If you check it out, I'm sure you'll find it's authentic." I handed him the cell phone. He hit the back button, moved to another picture, then a third, before looking back at me.
"Can you take us lower, please?"
The Major gave one curt nod, "Take 'er down."
Slowly lowering into the enclosed valley, as we lost first one and then another thousand feet, things began to take shape. Looking where the lake had been, I realized that uphill from that, sometime in the past a landside of boulders had come down the hill. A large dead tree trunk jutted from the rubble, and suddenly it became clear what had happened. The tree trunk was nearly exactly where the live tree had been that I'd seen the day before. Somehow whatever had kept water from draining from the valley had broken; a land slide had covered the area, nearly obliterating all evidence of what had been there before. Once I figured the tree as a landmark, I followed my instincts to where it must have been -- and suddenly I saw something.
"Look," I pointed. "Right there -- see that?" What appeared to be a long skinny tree trunk or something similar was barely visible, now bent in the middle, almost buried in the rubble from a land slide.
"What are you looking at?" The Major questioned, "That tree trunk?"
"It's not a tree trunk." I stated firmly, "It's a wing."
We circled around again, coming in from another angle before the major said "I hate to admit it -- but I think he's right."
There was nowhere to land, but the pilot lowered us down until two crewmen were able to crawl out and we pulled back up into a hover. In radio contact, it took just moments for them to confirm that what we were seeing was indeed the leading edge of a wing, now nearly buried by the rubble from the mountain, but definitely a wing.
"Ok, so where's the rest of the plane?"
"The wing was about 50 feet from the fuselage, just slightly north," I answered. The major relayed what I'd said to the crewmen, who began picking their way over the boulders. It was hard to tell from the air, but apparently the boulders had left large gaps underneath. One crewman dropped to his knees, and we heard him say "I've got something strange here."
It was a week before they recovered the body, or rather, what was left of the body, of Sgt. Jimmy Fallon, US Army Air Corp. The plane had protected his body from being totally buried, they recovered it from under the stub of the wing, a small pocket of protection. There was a chain around the neck of the skeleton, a single dog tag attached. When the major called and asked me to visit him at Edwards, I asked if he could get me permission to land at the base, and he did. Sitting in a room, this time with a General present, I told the tale one more time, from start to finish. I looked around the room, easily telling that most were still skeptical of my tale.
"You don't believe me," I said simply. Nobody said anything, but the Major raised a hand, wiggled his fingers in a "bring it here" motion and looked at an airman standing next to the door. The airman opened the door, and two additional airmen entered, carrying several boxes.
The major stood and reached into the boxes, began pulling things out; a battered and scratched aluminum water bottle, a ratty old thinsulate pad, and a sleeping bag; slightly torn, but very similar to mine. "We found these with the body. His skeleton was lying on the thinsulate, some of his bones were stuck to it, and it's got what we presume are your initials in the corner. The sleeping bag has no identification, but it matches your description."