Closer to Home: A Journey to Epiphany
by David M. Loucas, MD
The KC-135 Stratotanker was camouflaged with green, brown and black paint as it rolled awkwardly like a swollen pelican on to the active runway at Anderson Air Force Base on the Island of Guam. The cargo deck over the massive fuel tanks built into the fuselage of the aircraft was where those uniformed military travelers found the coarse hammock-like seats that would hold them in place while this windowless, modified, four engine Boeing 707 rumbled, roared and vibrated as it accelerated to lift-off velocity. Inside the cargo deck the travelers could feel the physical forces and the upward tilting of the craft. The retracting and locking of the landing gear created a quiver in the body of the aircraft. Eventually the Stratotanker would level out, dip and turn to begin its eight hour trek from Guam to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. The year was 1966 and I was a Sergeant in the United States Air Force.
From the very moment that the aircraft took off I knew that this flight was going to be uncomfortable. My usual angst about not having a window seat was multiplied one hundred fold in this sealed, windowless compartment. From the outset, the air was stagnant, the temperature was in the mid eighties, and I had the feeling of imprisonment and of impending doom. I really just needed to calm down.
A pounding headache, like coarse chimes in my head, screamed painful reminders of the five or more rusty nails- one shot Drambuie with one shot of scotch, that I had drank two days before at a club called the Duva Den on the Naval Communication Station on Guam. The pain was a further reminder that there are limits to which excesses shouldn't exceed. Lost in the fog of the worst hangover that I had ever had, I decided to focus on how this trip back home began. I placed the palms of my hands on my forehead, closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep...
I didn't receive mail very often while I was stationed at the U.S. Air Force, Wettengel Communications Receiver Site, so when the letter and invitation came announcing the wedding of my brother, Gary to his high school sweetheart, Isabel, I was delighted. I had enough accumulated leave time to request a two week hiatus from the flora and fauna of Guam. I recall that I was excited about the prospect of going back home to Brooklyn, New York, especially now that I was donning new Sergeant Stripes on my uniform. As a kid who grew up in the low income projects getting respect was a vehicle for overcoming the stigma of a second class childhood. Yet despite the thrill of my return to the hub of my life, and despite the joy that I was feeling for the upcoming wedding of my brother, I had this gnawing feeling that I would never make it home- that somehow I was destined to plunge over the ledge of my life into the abyss of darkness and the unknown...
...When my eyes next opened I was awaking from a three and one half hour sleep. The thermal nuclear headache over the back of my head was all but gone, and my head was planted on to the upper arm and shoulder of the Non-Com sitting to my right.
"I must have passed out. I apologize for draping myself over you Sergeant."
"It's really okay. You didn't bother me- not at all, not one bit." His voice was resonant, reassuring, yet at the same time he was speaking very softly.
I straightened up my posture and turned to look at this man. The configuration of stripes on his sleeve identified him as an E6 or Technical Sergeant. This military rank identified someone who knew his job very well, and was good at it. His last name was printed on his nametag- Suriel. ˜An interesting name", I thought to myself. ˜It sounds possibly French or maybe Slovak or even Middle Eastern or Israeli."
"The name is Middle Eastern in origin, although it was quite well known on the Iberian Peninsula six to seven hundred years ago."
His words reverberated in my mind. "How did you know that I was thinking about your name?"
"Your expression is not hard to read, Sergeant," he responded to me, "I just watched as you looked at the name on my uniform. The deduction was quite simple."
The fog of sleep had lifted and I focused in on the person next to me. He was a darker African American, about 38 years old. His eyes were so unusual in that it was difficult to tell what color they were. Even after a hard look I couldn't be sure if they were gray or possibly light hazel brown-green. He appeared to be about five feet, nine inches tall and somewhat overweight for his size. He was an uncommon looking person. By that I mean that he had a â€˜Rubenesque' cherub-like face. His brown cheeks had a faint hint of maroon. And that's the other thing his face was smooth, as if he never had to shave because he had no hair growing there. There was nothing ordinary about Technical Sergeant Suriel.
The ambient temperature in this flying human cargo bay is now about 63 degrees, and everything seems wrong about this. Another 4 hours of flight time still left. Have to keep busy...
Addressing Sergeant Suriel, "I am David Loucas. How about you Sergeant, what's your first name?"
Looking at me he grinned, a big wide mouthed grin. I'm not sure what that big smile meant. "Raphael, my name is Raphael."
"Well let me ask you a question. When I first boarded and sat down were you next to me? Because I do not recall seeing you until after I woke up from my nap on your arm and shoulder."
"Man you were hung over and so out of it when you first got on this flying gas station that I'm not surprised that you don't remember much. But the short answer is yes. I have been with you since the beginning."
"Well, where are you going to?'
"Well David, I'm getting off this tanker in Hawaii, and then I will be going home until I get my next assignment. And you, where will you be going? Wait, wait, don't tell me...to your brother's wedding."
I was really taken aback. "Okay Raphael, now you're starting to spook me. I mean, how did you know this?"
Again the grin and the broad smile, "You talk in your sleep."
The aircraft bounced and shimmied sharply as it flew through dense turbulence, then it plunged for about five seconds before regaining stability and composure. I, on the other hand, took somewhat longer to regain my composure. I was momentarily gripped with nausea and anxiety. Raphael appeared to be unmoved and unaffected. "How do you do it? How do you stay so calm as this flying gas station shakes, rattles and rolls? How do you relax faced with the possibility of anonymous and ignominious demise?"
"Are you always this dramatic, David?"
"I am. There is an irony, isn't there, in that here I am in the United States Air Force, and I am terrified of flying. I am not a poster child for the Air Force."
"Let me put your mind to ease, young Sergeant. This flight is going to be uneventful, and we will make it to Hickam without any problems. You have to trust me about this. I have a sense about such things."
Now here's the thing- I really did trust this stranger.
So the KC-135 descends from its forty two thousand feet arc across the sky to land in the darkness of night at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. I feel the surge of deceleration and the rumbling of the wheels on the landing strip and I know I am back on planet Earth. I have survived the first leg of this trip. The last leg of this trek is across the remainder of the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington. I might as well be on the moon because I still have to traverse the whole American continent in order to arrive in Brooklyn, New York.
I deplaned from this aircraft. I recall sitting in a lounge, smoking cigarette after cigarette and drinking black coffee I closed my eyes. I had a very ominous feeling about this whole trip home. There was no way back to Guam and everything about this flight felt wrong... and there he was, Technical Sergeant Raphael Suriel.
"Hello Sergeant. Why don't you get a cup of coffee?" I pointed to a service area in the lounge where there was a beverage kiosk set up.
"I don't drink coffee."
"No, no... Look, David this is my point of departure. I have a friend in Ops, and you need to know that there is a TWA flight that has been leased by the Defense Department; it will be boarding in one half hour from Honolulu International Airport from gate number eight. It will get you to where you are going."
"What's really going on here Raphael?"
It's so true; his voice was so soft and yet it was vibrant, filling my head. His eyes were penetrating, "You were right, David there are some things that you are supposed to do, but getting back on that KC-135 is not one of them. Now get moving. You have your assignment now and I have mine. We'll meet again." He smiled radiantly at me- this remarkable African American person. Even now the memory of his face is forged into my mind and my heart.
Darting out to the parked aircraft I sought out the crew chief, Master Sergeant Grimes to let him know that I was booking off of the flight to Fairchild Air Force Base, and I wanted to get my personal items off of the aircraft. I remember him saying to me: "Hey Loucas are you gonna paddle across the Pacific?"
Hailing a taxi cab I instructed the driver to get me to Honolulu International Airport as fast as possible. I took out a ten dollar bill and said, "I'm betting that you are going to get this ten spot as a tip... Okay so now I'm at Honolulu International Airport, I'm running to gate eight, up to the attendant, "Hello I understand that this TWA flight has been leased by the Department of Defense. I have leave orders. Is it possible that I can get onboard on stand-by status?"
"One moment please, Sergeant." The attendant disappeared through the elevated ramp doors. A few minutes later she returned. "Welcome aboard Sergeant."
"I know that this is going to sound like a strange question, but where exactly is this aircraft going?"
The attendant smiled and answered, "Why Kennedy International Airport, and it is a non-stop flight. Where are you going?"
"Well that happens to be the closest airport to Brooklyn."
Nothing about this flight made any sense either. I mean there were only about sixteen people on his huge aircraft, and I was seated in first class. The cockpit door was left opened and I had the experience of actually watching the Captain and crew fly this aircraft. Returning to my seat I was engulfed by the soft leather and cushy padding. The next thing I remember is that this ten and one half hour flight was about to end.
"Wake up Sergeant." The attendant was nudging me to place my seat in the upright position as we made our final approach into Kennedy International Airport.
"What time is it?" I felt disoriented.
"It's almost three PM."
There was truly a dreamlike quality to all of this. I began to think that what I believed to have happened was absurd. Perhaps the illusory effects of an excess of alcohol had created in my mind this fantastic dreamlike reality. To think what I was thinking went beyond the edge of logic and reason. No, none of the ruminations of Raphael Suriel ever occurred. I was supposed to be on an almost empty TWA aircraft going nonstop from Hawaii to Brooklyn, New York. I just simply could not remember how all this worked out. Certainly there was no otherworldly, divine intervention. To believe this would have crafted me into someone that I had never been before- a person of real faith.
Well I went to my brother Gary's wedding had a blast, hooked up with my first honest to the heart girlfriend, the one who made time literally stand still when I first met her. Hey I was on vacation, twenty-one years old, a Sergeant in the United States Air Force of America, and was in top form.
The telegram sent to my mother was from the Secretary of the Air Force, Harold Brown. It arrived several days after I had returned home. My mother was reading it when I came into the house after playing handball.
"David!" There was a surprising sharpness and an urgency in her voice that I had not expected.
"What happened, Mom?"
"Read this telegram." She moved it to me.
It was from the Secretary of the Air Force: â€˜Dear Mr. and Mrs. Loucas, I sincerely regret to inform you that your son, Sergeant David Loucas, has died. He was on board on board a U.S. Aircraft that developed a malfunction and was lost to radar at five hundred miles from the U.S mainland over the Pacific Ocean while en route to Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington. It is with a deep sense of sadness that I must extend my deepest regrets for your loss. Your son was an honorable man and he served his country with distinction.
"Oh my God, Mom!" I was shaken to the core of my marrow. "I booked off that flight in Hawaii. The only record of that event lies with the crew chief of that ill fated flight. And he is at the bottom of the deep blue sea."
I called the Department of the Air Force and informed them that I was not deceased, and that I would be returning to my duty station at the end of my vacation.
So here it is. It's a believe it or not hors d'oeuvre. When I landed at Hickam Air Force Base I would not have booked off of the KC-135 flight, even with my trepidations. I had no independent knowledge of any flight leaving from Honolulu International Airport to anywhere. All of it; every bit of it happened in real time. My life was spared for some purpose. I could find no trace of anyone named Raphael Suriel who was a Technical Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. But he did find me; I remember his words, "I have been with you from the beginning."
Here is what I will share with each of you, and please consider that I am an unapologetic scientist, however, those who believe that there is nothing more than facts and science will someday learn a greater truth. Those whose faith is bolstered by an abiding hope, I will tell you only that what you believe I now know. Praise God!