FEB 01
Smile A Little Smile For Me
Holiday: Bubble Gum Day

The first time a military aerobatics unit ever performed the Missing Man Formation was in 1969 when the USAF Thunderbirds flew the maneuver to honor the men and women who were then POWs in Vietnam.

"What's that you're listening to, Captain?"

"Uh, they call it bubblegum music." Murdock ducked his head, felt his face grow warm. "I, uh, just liked the name of the group. The Flying Machine. Catchy, huh?"

His commander frowned. "Yeah. Well, c'mon. We're going to go over that new maneuver." The frown softened as Murdock didn't move from his seat. "You okay with this, Captain? I mean, it hasn't been that long..."

"I'll be okay, sir. I mean, this is really an honor. I know that. And I know this is a way to salute the guys..."

The commander crouched down, looking Murdock straight in the eye. "Murdock, you did an amazing job over there. It's one of the reasons you were accepted into the program. You've paid your dues. You have nothing to feel guilty about. Nobody could've gotten them all out. Nobody."

"My head knows that. I just have to convince the rest of me."

"Well, just think of the good you'll do, flying with us. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if you're the one taking my place next year. You're a natural, Captain."

"Yeah. That's what they tell me."

"Are you having second thoughts?"

Murdock cringed inside. He knew the commander couldn't fathom anyone not wanting to be a member of the Thunderbirds. That was every pilot's dream. And yet...

"No, sir. I'm proud to be on the team, sir."

"Good. Because if you aren't one hundred percent sure you want to be here, now's the time to tell me. We've only got four months left to train. If I need to find a replacement..."

Murdock stood abruptly. "I guess we better go over that maneuver now, right, sir?" He smiled and started walking toward the hangar.

A moment later the commander followed.


*****

"Want to tell me what happened, Captain?"

Murdock fidgeted, not able to look the commander in the face. He really didn't know what had happened. One minute he was flying along, perfectly situated, ready for the next maneuver, the pulling away from the group, leaving the gap for the "missing comrade".

The next minute he couldn't even see the rest of the squad. Or the base. Or anything that looked remotely familiar. It had taken forever to find his way back and land.

"I'm waiting, Captain."

"I, uh, I don't know, sir. I just..."

"You just lost it! The maneuver was perfect, and then you just kept going. It's just a damn good thing it was the end of the show! And this isn't the first time you've gone off in your own little world."

"I've never jeopardized..."

"No, it's never been while you're up there. Not until today. But everyone's noticed it." The commander, sighed, softened his voice. "It's been like this since Hamburger Hill. That's what's eating you, isn't it?"

"I know this is a big deal, Jack. I know what being on the T-Birds means. But...all those guys over there..."

"Murdock, the Air Force is not going to transfer you. You know that."

"I know. I know..."


*****

"So, Captain. All ready?"

Murdock spun around, nearly dropping his flight bag. "What are you doing here?"

"Come now, Murdock. Is that any way to treat someone who did you a favor?"

"Some favor, Cheney. I wanted a transfer."

"You got a transfer. Okay, so now you're Army green instead of Air Force blue, so big deal."

"I liked the Air Force!"

"Well, they didn't like you, Murdock. You were an embarrassment. A T-Bird pilot who didn't want the job? Major no-no, Captain. Making you disappear into Nam was the only way they'd go for it."

Murdock turned and stared out the window, ignoring Cheney, who waited a few more moments before stalking away. Murdock watched as the transport that would take him to Long Binh bellied up to the terminal.

It wouldn't be the Air Force, and he'd be flying choppers, not fighters.

But it was where he belonged.

FINI