Author's note: This is a piece I wrote for a local military newspaper back in 2006 when I began my writing journey. I don't think they would mind if I reprinted it. The subject was a friend of mine, a friend I've regretfully lost track of in the intervening years and thousand miles. I found the article when I was looking for pictures of my old friend. Sadly, I don't have any, but I do have this.
I miss you, News Man.
Let me introduce you to a friend of mine, he goes by ‘Freddie’ to his friends. He is a native New Yorker but calls Albuquerque home. You can still hear the Big Apple in his voice. He says he’s 51, but looks and acts younger. Freddie likes HAM radio and knows Morse code. He hasn’t had a radio set for several years, but talks about picking up the hobby again. He likes action movies, chess, watching Jeopardy, and plays a mean game blackjack. Every Christmas, he plays “Santa” at his apartment complex, stuffing the stockings in the recreation room with goodies. Maybe you’ve seen him around town, selling papers for a living.
Freddie loves to work, sometimes 7 days a week. He takes pride in being tough. I’ve seen him selling papers in pre-dawn freezing rain and snow. I asked him if the cold bothered him. His answer would make an Air Force survival instructor proud.
“Sometimes I dress in seven layers and I make sure to keep dry. I’m from New York. People out here don’t know what cold is. It beats not working. ”
I first met Freddie over a year ago; he was selling papers where I buy my morning coffee. He saw my uniform and asked me a few questions about the Air Force. Over the next year we talked on and off. After a few months our brief morning exchanges turned into friendly conversations about the military, the war, or whatever was on the front page of the daily paper.
Over time I’ve learned how much Freddie loves the military, particularly the Air Force. He has an unwavering support and dedication for those who serve in uniform. Once he asked me how he could donate to the USO. Another morning he asked what he could do to support wounded soldiers. He’s brought me canned food and new clothes for military families in need. A truer patriot cannot be found.
One cold morning last autumn I asked him if he had ever visited the local base. He replied he loved going to the air shows. As I turned to go he called after me, his tough New York accent wavering, “I would give anything to be in your shoes for just one day.”
His words were like a punch to the gut. You see, Freddie’s had a harder life than most of us can imagine. When he was eight years old, a drunk driver plowed into his family’s car, killing his parents. Orphaned and mostly alone, he’s endured a lifetime of severe disability and pain. The accident forever paralyzed Freddie’s entire left side. He walks only with the aid of a cane and a leg brace. He endures seizures and slurred speech. With all this, he never complains. He tells me, “Survivors don’t need much, I prefer the simple life. I can take pretty good care of myself.” There isn’t a bitter or angry bone in his body. Well, I’m angry for him. If not for the carelessness and selfishness of a drunk driver he would have grown up with a fair shot at life.
The consequences of drunk driving linger long after the reports are filed, the police tape is removed, and the nightly news laments another tragedy. Drunk drivers are destroyers of worlds. The mayhem they inflict in an instant lasts forever. Their victims have children, spouses, parents, and friends who pay the horrible price long after the drunk driver serves their sentence and gets their license back.
For those choosing to drink and drive, if you can’t think about yourself, your career or your family then think about parents driving home with their kids in the back seat, trying to make it through the gauntlet with their families, their worlds, intact. Are you prepared to forever destroy what some else holds most dear? For Freddie it’s too late. A drunk driver took his world 43 years ago.
Warriors come in all shapes and sizes and, in his heart, Freddie is a warrior. When he sees our planes he dreams of flying and serving his nation. If things had been different I’m sure Freddie would have worn Air Force Blue - flying an F-16, manning the gun on helicopter, or parachuting out of an HC-130 to save a life. Instead, he plays the hand fate dealt him. He’s tough. He takes each day as it is and dreams of owning a little land and a house in the New Mexico countryside.
A few months ago another of Freddie’s dreams came true. A squadron made him an Honorary Commander, and for one day he lived in our shoes. He flew the simulators, toured the flightline, and talked to our young Airmen about the consequences of drinking and driving. He was presented a squadron coin, certificate, and a flight jacket with a name tag with his call sign: News Man.
News Man enjoys talking people in the military whenever he can. He’s always asking me how the ‘pilots’ are at base and if there is anything they need.
He knows what being a ‘good wingman’ all is about.