Normally, I don't commemorate bad days. But 45 years ago, above a misty valley near a place called Phu Cat in Vietnam, where we were waging a fruitless war, I had a day I will never forget. I still need a drink when I think about it. I was a reporter covering the war for The Plain Dealer, traveling in a fighter jet at 275 mph, just 100 feet off the ground. The pilot was trying to strike a Viet Cong mortar position that had pinned down American troops.
We flew through a foreboding valley, the vegetation flashing by like a blur of broccoli. Around us, enemy tracers reached into the sky, sparkling arcs that swept across our path like fireflies lighting the way. A wide-eyed voyeur, punished by the G-forces, I felt captured by fear, yet captivated by adrenaline-fueled exultation.
The pilot, Air Force Capt. Randy Smedley, was near the end of his tour, having flown 297 missions. The plane, an A-1 propeller-driven Skyraider, was armed with eight 500-pound bombs and four 20-millimeter guns. Our sortie was supposed to be a milk run, a two-plane strike on some caves near the Ho Chi Minh trail.
But no sooner had we taken off than the radio crackled with the cry of a U.S. Army unit ambushed in a valley near the coast. All aircraft, including ours, scrambled to support the beleaguered troops. One by one, the jets made their bomb runs. We descended into that valley five times, dropped our bombs and climbed back to a safe altitude.
During our attacks, Smedley focused on the target and never said a word to me. The only noise was the engine roar. We rolled over into a steep dive. I struggled against a blackout from the G's.
Despite the bombing, the troops were still taking fire. Now Smedley looked over at me and said we were going into the valley to use the guns.
We made two more passes. Smedley fired the guns, which stuttered and shook the plane. The return fire was intense, but to me, the tracers looked harmless, glowing in gentle curves beneath us, then silently above us. I ached from stress and the hard seat. I could not fathom the nerve it took to pull out of the valley and fly down into it again. But that's what Smedley did, leaving me lost in the force of the flight and the grip of fear.
Then we were hit. I heard a thunk, looked up to my left and saw something go straight up from the wing.
Smedley pulled the plane from the valley and looked at me with tired eyes from above his oxygen mask. It had happened so fast that it wasn't until later that I grasped the danger of it all.
The round had deflected up and through the wing. If not for the deflection, it surely would have hit Smedley. We were lucky, incredibly lucky. I felt that narcotic rush that comes with a brush with death.
We landed safely, but only after Smedley warned that the brakes might have been hit and that if we skidded off the runway into a minefield, I should not get out.
Later, I learned that we did hit the mortar position and the troops escaped. The plane that accompanied us was later shot down on a similar mission, with both pilots killed.
I never saw Smedley again. I wondered for a lifetime what had happened to him. In those few hours, I had forged a strange bond with him. War can do that.
From time to time, I'd search online for him, wanting to revisit that moment in the valley. The thrill of that long-ago flight haunted me. I wanted to know how Smedley remembered it.
Last year I emailed a writer working on a book about the A-1 Skyraider and asked if he knew Smedley. He'd seen his name on a list of veterans and promised to try to find him.
And then with the ping of an email, there was Smedley.
"We were just supposed to drop some bombs and make toothpicks out of the jungle that day," Smedley wrote in greeting. "Didn't work out that way, did it?"
Smedley and his wife live in Florida. He finished his Air Force career, flew airliners and later flew helicopters in the Reserves.
"That guy with the gun wanted to ruin our day," he wrote. "Came close to it, too."
I told him I often thought of that day. Smedley had never seen my story, which ran on the top of Page One of The Plain Dealer with my name in the headline — a reporter's fantasy.
"Hey, partner, I often wondered about you," he wrote. "I hated to put you through that. I always felt badly about it."
I didn't tell him that the bad day may have been my best day as a reporter. Nor did I tell him that nearly a half century later, the memory of that valley is still enough to make me want a drink.
Airstrikes seem to be in the news every day now. When I read of one in some far-off war, I feel the thirsty fear of the dive and the dark pull of the G-forces and imagine the fates of those below. Then I think it's a ride all politicians should take, just to see what a hell of a thing war really is.