Opinion: Musings on the Coast

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Fair Skies and Tailwinds for Bedrocker

Don Crowe was a Marine fighter pilot, call sign Bedrocker—a ladies’ man. He flew some 300 sorties over Vietnam while that war raged. He took off and landed on an aircraft carrier cruising about 150 miles off Vietnam’s shores. While stateside, he was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro behind Laguna Beach. He and his flyboy buddies hung out at Laguna’s Dirty Bird. There they cooked their own steaks, made salads from the fixings, ordered baked potatoes, and talked and drank until the wee hours.

They were a high-spirited bunch, combat fighter pilots: the elite. Becoming one was like becoming a pro athlete: one in a million: eyesight more than flawless, reflexes like a cobra, and eye-hand coordination like Kobe Bryant. 

Their composure when multi-tasking in combat—ground-to-air missiles screaming at them, ack-ack exploding around them, Migs swooping—during all that, their composure was steel. 

Their average age was the low twenties, still boys really, fit as could be and especially in uniform, catnip to the local Laguna girls.

I knew Don from business dealings after he retired from the Marines, and oh boy, was he cocky—low key, but cocky, and after he trusted me, told me some stories.

One time after a mission he was returning to his aircraft carrier at night and low on fuel, too far out to return to the mainland, when all his electronics failed. His jet would still fly by hand/feet controls, but all the instruments were worthless, including his radio, which meant he could not get the beaming signal from the carrier, nor communicate, and was lost. Thinking quickly he searched the ocean to spot the giant phosphorescent trail only a carrier could make. Don found it, followed it to the carrier, buzzed the Island to show he existed, and landed with less than two minutes of fuel left.

Another time while Stateside, he flew his squadron’s paychecks from a base in the East to El Toro. He refueled in Kansas during a lightning storm and took-off just as a huge tornado dropped from the storm clouds. Unknowingly, a ground controller vectored Don directly into it.

The tornado tumbled his jet like a toy before blowing it apart.  Don’s navigator (sitting behind him) was pinned to his seat and could not pull the eject ring, so Don twisted around and did it for him, finally ejecting himself.  He hit the jet’s debris field and broke one leg, one arm, almost all his ribs, thirty-plus other bones, ripped asunder the stomach muscles holding his guts together, and finally, tore the other leg out of the knee joint where it hung by cartilage tissue. 

While floating down, Don had the composure (there it was, that composure again) to note where the navigator landed and that there was a nearby farmhouse. He hit the ground, limped to his unconscious navigator, and then somehow dragged both to the farmhouse.

Both lives were saved in the hospital, but it was close. The docs wanted to amputate Don’s leg to save him, but he would not allow it. After extensive surgery, they told him he would never walk again, much less fly. 

Fifteen months later, there was a formal annual gala for the Marine Air Brass at a gala near Washington, D.C. There he entered with his wife’s arm looped through his and escorted her to the dance floor for a twirl. All the attendees stood and cheered. One year after that, he was certified to fly again. 

Don Crowe, a former Laguna Beach resident and now passed too early as a result of his many injuries, is a genuine hero. America, be proud.

Michael is co-founder of Orange County School of the Arts and The Discovery Cube

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