My finest hour
Who is George Matthews and why should I listen to him?
These are valid questions you might be asking. You can learn a little bit in the “about me” section, but it will not tell you why I am in any way qualified to create a blog about being a vegan man. I’ll take this opportunity to stress that I am not an expert, I make plenty of mistakes, but I am committed to constant improvement. I want this blog to be a journey we embark on together where we inspire each other and hold each other accountable. I will use the terms “we” and “us” as I write to emphasize that we are a “troop” steadily growing together, as opposed to an expert attempting to lecture.
I’d like to share a story with all of you about a moment in my life so that you can learn a little bit about me. One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Vince Lombardi who said
I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.
The following story describes my finest hour.
It was my very first day on duty as a qualified helicopter pilot. I had been at the air station overnight and barely slept as I nervously anticipated a nighttime launch. The next morning as I walked across the hangar admiring what a beautiful day it was in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico the alarm wailed over the sound system. I will always remember the rush of adrenaline I felt and how my mind raced as I tried to remember what I was supposed to do. The Aircraft Commander ran upstairs to the operations center for a brief regarding the impending case. I ran to get my gear and nervously fumbled around for my helmet and survival vest. Once I had everything, I ran out to the helicopter to start the engines while the other pilot completed the remaining pre-flight tasks. Despite all the adrenaline and excitement, my extensive training allowed me to run swiftly through all of the checklists in the sweltering heat. Moments later the other pilot joined me, and we promptly took off headed East towards a small town called Loiza. The weather was beautiful without a cloud in sight, but as I looked down I noticed that the normally crystal clear waters were churned up with massive ten-foot waves crashing on the reef.
While transiting to the scene, the Aircraft Commander informed me that the man we were looking for fell off his jet ski and the current pulled him into the surging surf. He was in a small cove surrounded by a cliff of razor sharp reef being relentlessly battered by the waves. Several surface rescue assets arrived on scene but were unable to provide any assistance due to the dangerous surf. They described the scene to us over the radio, and I could sense the urgency as we hurried eastbound. I anxiously watched the time to on-scene count down on our flight computer and the thirty-minute transit seemed to take forever.
Once we arrived on scene, I immediately saw the survivor bobbing around in a life jacket at the mercy of the vicious surf. He was getting thrown back and forth and appeared exhausted as he scrambled unsuccessfully trying to avoid the reef. We ran through all of our rescue checklists and discussed lowering our rescue swimmer into the angry ocean below. As I looked down, I saw nothing but churning white water and powerful waves crashing into the reef thrusting plumes of water into the sky. Our brave rescue swimmer immediately volunteered to go down and assist the survivor without hesitation, seemingly unaffected by the hazardous conditions he would soon encounter. Moments later, we lowered the swimmer using our hoist cable, and he detached himself to affect a rescue. I was amazed as he seemed to move effortlessly through the surf toward the survivor. Despite how confident our swimmer was, the next couple of minutes felt like hours as we hovered safely above the chaos below. Eventually, the hoist operator reported that the swimmer was ready, and we lowered the cable to recover the swimmer and survivor. At this point, we did not have any fuel to spare, so I had to begin immediately conducting the necessary checklists to get us to the hospital. With the swimmer and survivor safely on board, we transitioned to forward flight for a short transit to the hospital in San Juan. We soon descended between some trees and buildings to land at the hospital pad where medics were waiting to treat the survivor. It was not until we landed safely on deck that everything started to set in. I looked back at the survivor who was bruised, bloody, and still out of breath, and I realized that everything I worked for over the past 25 years of my life led me to this moment. The moment where I would look into someone’s eyes and know that they might not have been alive if it were not for the efforts of the aircrew I was a part of. I realized at that moment that I had accomplished the one goal that was with me my entire life and guided me up to that point, the goal of saving someone’s life. Waiting on the helicopter pad, I fought back tears as the paramedics helped the survivor into a stretcher. I knew that soon he would be surrounded by his family who loved him and that his children would grow up with a father.
So what is so important about that moment?
It may seem like that was just a simple rescue of a man in the water, but to me it was much more than that. That rescue was set in motion some 20 years earlier by a young boy with a dream.
I was born on April 3rd, 1985 and was forced to enter this life gasping for my breath as the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck. It was a fitting introduction. As a young boy, I was every parent’s nightmare because I ran around with reckless abandon and no apparent regard for my safety. My grandfather affectionately referred to me as “the bull”, short for bull in a china closet. I would head full speed into door frames, or glass tables and get up un-phased, without ever crying. This eventually led to a broken collarbone, having to get my nose stitched back onto my face, and my parents having to meet with my teachers to explain why I constantly had black eyes. As you can imagine, I was constantly in trouble and eventually my own grandparents would start to blame me for ruining holidays and other family events with my antics. To make matters worse, I could not talk until I was four years old so I communicated with a series of caveman like grunts that only my older sister could understand. Needless to say people did not expect much from me, but they all underestimated the power of a boy with a dream.
From the moment I could talk, I knew that I wanted to be a helicopter pilot. My father was in the Coast Guard, and I always looked up to him. I would wear uniforms for school pictures, and pretty much whenever I felt like it. I would sit for hours in carboard boxes that I transformed into helicopters and imagined all the people I would rescue someday. The only problem was that very few people believed I could actually do it. One of those people was my grandfather on my mothers side who we called “Bertie”. He had worked for Pratt and Whitney and Lockheed Martin designing aircraft engines including the one used on the SR-71 blackbird. He shared my enthusiasm and believed in me, and that had a drastic impact on my life. I was doing great in school, and things seemed to be on track for my dream of aviation until high school. It started with Bertie going into the hospital, and his health slowly deteriorated over several months leading to a coma and eventually his passing. I was destroyed. He believed in me when nobody else did and now he was gone. Soon after, my other grandfather passed away from a heart attack and my parents marriage began falling apart. Despite everything around me in turmoil, I still kept my dream of being a pilot. I never gave up.
I was convinced that if I wanted to fly helicopters I had to be an officer and to be an officer I had to go to the Academy. Many people doubted me and they had good reason. I had a guidance counselor chuckle when I told her I was going to the Academy. She said “I saw much better students than you get turned down, you need to have a backup plan”. I had an English teacher laugh in front of the class when I told her I was going to be a pilot. I thought I was going to prove them wrong, until my senior year when my worst nightmare came true.
The Academy rejected me. The year I applied, the Academy had one of the lowest acceptance percentages of any school in the country. I was never the smartest, wasn’t the best athlete, wasn’t a tremendous student, I just wasn’t quite good enough. I was crushed, but I had a dream and I never gave up.
I kept calling admissions over and over again and finally they acquiesced and agreed to send me to a service academy prep school where I could go for a year and boost my GPA. That was not good enough, so I kept calling until finally they told me they would keep me in mind in case anyone dropped out at the last minute. So then I kept calling to see if anyone had dropped out until they eventually requested that I stop. Then on June 28th, two days before the class of 2007 was reporting in, I lost hope as I sat ashamed on a lifeguard chair. Just then I was paged to the lifeguard office for a phone call. The Academy admissions officer was calling because one of the future cadets broke their leg. I was in! I walked into my bosses office, quit, and started packing. I was glad that I never gave up.
Two days later I was at the Academy, and I hated it. I tried to quit, but I did not and to this day I am thankful for that. I won’t go into detail but let’s just say I did not excel at the Academy. I almost failed out, I almost got kicked out several times for bad conduct, and there wasn’t a day that went by where I did not entertain the idea of giving up. I barely managed to keep my head above water and whenever I told anyone I wanted to be a pilot, they would all laugh. Nobody had ever been accepted for flight training who was not at the top of the class. I was 190 out of 210, with an appalling conduct record. I had no chance, but I applied anyway. Part of the application process was an interview, and leading up to it I was terrified of explaining why I was wasting the board’s time after they just interviewed all the top performers in my class. I told them the truth. I was a poor performer and always had been, but I wanted it more than anyone else, and I wanted to save lives. I showed them a picture of me as a child in a helicopter, a child with a dream who never gave up.
A man by the name of Captain Pettitt was in the interview and for whatever reason he believed in me. He convinced everyone on the board that I belonged in aviation, and I will never forget that act of kindness as long as I live. Consequently, I was accepted for flight training, and the moment I found out was one of the best moments in my life.
Unfortunately, a funny thing happens when people do not expect much from you, you subconsciously start to expect less from yourself. When I arrived at flight training, I knew I was out of my league, I was surrounded by the best of the best, and I did not belong. This became evident almost immediately. Training begins by flying general aviation aircraft, in my case it was the small Piper Tomahawk. The civilians train you at a low cost to make sure that you can solo in about 12 hours of flight time. It is set up this way to wash anyone out who has no business in aviation before the military spends any money on them. Well, I failed to meet their requirement to solo on time, and luckily they gave me a few extra flight hours and allowed me to stay in the program. My problem was that I was afraid to fail and put so much pressure on myself that I would panic in the plane, especially during landing. I swear I almost crashed that plane several times, but they let me solo because I never gave up.
After graduating from the civilian program, you begin military flight training. When I went through, we flew T-34s a fully aerobatic turboprop aircraft. As you can imagine, I am even more nervous because I am about the only person in history to nearly fail out of the initial civilian flight training. Now add to that nervousness the fact that the aircraft is moving twice as fast, and an angry military instructor behind me and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. (Also see the about me section where I mention that I was constantly sick due to a poor diet)
I could not land a plane and apparently that’s an important part of flying. When I would get close to the ground and was supposed to touch down, I would nearly have an anxiety attack. I failed several flights, and I almost lost hope. I had failed so many flights that I had to have a special meeting with the commanding officer of the squadron to decide if It was worth it for me to continue. The only reason they retained me was because every instructor said I was extremely motivated, I just lacked the ability. The CO gave me another chance, but if I failed another flight, I was out of the program.
For about six months, I would wake up every morning and question if it all was a mistake. I would wonder if everyone was right and I was going to be a failure. I would sit before every flight sick to my stomach wondering if that would be the day I would fail and disappoint everyone that believed in me. I would wonder if that would be the day I proved that all those years of dreaming were just a waste of time, but I never gave up.
I persisted and eventually learned how to land a plane. In fact, on my last flight in the T-34 an instructor wrote on my grade sheet that I had the best landing he had ever seen from a student aviator. I started to believe in myself.
After flying T-34s, I started flying helicopters and from the moment I sat in one it felt like I was born to do it. Everything made sense to me, and I went from being one of the worst student aviators in history to breezing through helicopter training in record time. After a few months of flying helicopters, I received my wings, and I still get emotional when I think about it.
I am proud of what I accomplished, and I am proud I never gave up because It led me to that day in Puerto Rico. A Marine Corps pilot once told me that while flying helicopters you can answer prayers for those lost at sea, and we did just that. The man we saved looked up at me and saw a pilot when really he was looking at a boy with a dream who never gave up.
I have never been the best at anything. In fact I have always had a knack for making things harder for myself. I attribute all of my success to the fact that no matter what I never give up. When I have a dream, I follow through with it no matter how difficult it is. I decide in my mind that if I just hold on long enough and work hard enough I can accomplish anything.
My dream now is to change the world as a vegan man, and I will not give up. Please join me and be part of that dream.
Please leave me a comment about a time when you were faced with a challenge and never gave up.