This photo was taken on 10 November 1968. It was the night I arrived home after a year in Vietnam. The people you see in it are my beautiful, young wife, Carel. (We didn’t have any kids yet. If something had happened to me I didn’t want to leave her to raise a child alone.) Then there are my parents, May and G. Coleman Luck. The little person hugging me is my sister, Virginia. She had Down Syndrome. There were other people in the welcoming party, but they aren’t in the photo. My brother, Bill, took the picture and Carel’s family was there.
You will notice the clock above us. That’s eleven at night. My flight from San Francisco was over an hour late. There was a lot of joy when I got off the plane. What you can’t see in the photo was the strange relief I was feeling. Of course, I was relieved to be home from war, but there was a little more to it than that. Something unexpected had happened.
The military flight from Tan Son Nhut air base in Vietnam had been a long one, but it had been wonderful. It was full of guys going home. When the wheels left the ground, a spontaneous cheer had gone up. For everyone on that plane, it was over. We had lived through it where so many others hadn’t.
Then hour after hour over the Pacific.
We landed a couple of times to refuel. The last one was in Hawaii. Finally, the plane touched down at Travis Air Force Base outside of San Francisco. Once again, I was glad to be an officer. I got to go straight to the cab stand, while the enlisted men were forced to go through “processing”. I felt sorry for them. The cab took me to San Francisco airport, where I booked my flight to Chicago and home. While I waited to board, I called my family. Carel and I had spent five days together in Hawaii for R and R during the previous June, but apart from that and letters there had been no other contact. Back then there was no email or video calls, just the military post office. I would go for weeks without any mail, which was very depressing, then get a stack of letters which I would have to sort into chronological order. Very confusing, when they were responding to letters from me interspersed in the flow.
Even though I hadn’t slept much in 24 hours, it’s hard to describe how wonderful it felt to get on that civilian plane. From the photo you can see that I was traveling in uniform. I had heard that a lot of soldiers coming home were getting some bad treatment, so I was on my guard. I’m afraid my attitude was, God help the hippie that spits on me. It’ll be the last gob he ever hocks. Well, thankfully, everyone I met was very cordial. The plane was less than half full, so there was room to stretch out. It was a direct flight, not the run-around you get today. Though I was exhausted, I was too excited to sleep.
So here’s what happened. We were on final approach to O’Hare Airport, when the pilot came on. There was a small problem. They didn’t know if the landing gear had actually dropped down. Maybe it had, maybe it hadn’t, they couldn’t tell. So we climbed back up and got into a long pattern. For the next hour we flew in a huge circle over Chicago and northern Illinois, dumping fuel. That’s what the pilot said had to be done. What he didn’t tell us about was all of the emergency equipment gathering on the runway.
An hour is a lot of time to think while you’re flying around in the dark wondering if you’re going to crash. My thoughts ran like this, “Well, Lord, you’ve got to be kidding. This is a really dark comedy. I make it through a year in Vietnam, including the Tet Offensive, I see men get wounded and die around me, while I am never scratched. At this moment, I am flying in a circle over some of the greatest pizza in the world, which I have been looking forward to eating for a year. But before I can get a single piece, I’m gonna get greased on a runway at O’Hare with my family in the terminal? Is this really fair?” (I was tired. When I get tired, my usual charming personality can morph into something ugly.)
Finally, the pilot announced that we were going to take our only shot. (He didn’t say it quite that way. He didn’t need to.) We were heading in for a landing. (Did I detect a bit of tension in his voice?) The flight attendants (they were called stewardesses back then), gave us our instructions. We were told to take off our shoes because they might cause sparks. (A strong indication that we really were going to fry). Then we had to bend down with our heads on our knees in a “crash position”. (Think about that for a minute. This was back when there was enough room between seats in coach to bend down that way. Today only those in first and business get to keep their brains from turning to jelly on the seat in front of them.)
A pretty, young stewardess came and sat down beside me. As she took off her shoes she said, “I want to sit next to you. In case something happens, you can get me out of here.” I said I would. Well, of course, I would. I’m an infantry officer, not only a combat veteran, a combat leader. If I live just two more weeks, I’ll turn 23. Saving pretty stewardesses in a plane crash is what we do. Actually, that isn’t what I was thinking. I was thinking “I’m gonna be running barefoot through burning wreckage carrying a stewardess. Infantrymen hate to go barefoot. Barefoot is for prissy little sailors in their cute, white uniforms. Burning to a crisp with my arms around a deep-fried stewardess is not something my wife will understand.”
Well, none of that happened. The landing gear was down, and we sailed in for a smooth landing. But, clearly, this had been a serious situation. The runway was lined with emergency equipment and a lot of people in fireproof suits. (I’m sure none of them were barefoot.) In the terminal, my family didn’t know what had been happening. All they were told was that the flight had been delayed. They knew something was wrong when the jet didn’t arrive at the gate under its own power. It was towed in with its lights off.
I still remember so vividly walking up the ramp and seeing my family waiting. Only my brother and sister combat veterans can understand. Dear God, the long hellish journey was over. Finally, finally, I was home.
All of that was a long time ago. Forty-nine years have passed since that homecoming. Just writing those words is shocking to me. Could it really be forty-nine years? In a couple of weeks, I will turn 72. The beautiful young woman who was waiting at the airport is with me still. We have been married 51 years. But a lot of other people have vanished, my parents, my little sister, Carel’s parents. Not long ago a friend commented, “When you get to 70 you look around and realize that people are disappearing faster and faster.” It’s true, the older you get the more friends just vanish from this world.
When you turn 72 one fact becomes clear. Most of your flight is over. It may be a few more years or it may be a few more minutes, but you’ll be landing soon. As I look back over the long flight that has been my life, I remember a lot of great weather, beautiful, sunny days with smooth flying. I’ve visited some fascinating places with wonderful people. But there were plenty of other days when there was nothing but darkness and I had no idea where the plane was headed. I’ve landed in quite a few places where I didn’t want to go and a few where I shouldn’t have gone, minor crashes that didn’t quite kill me.
There have been terrible storms where the plane was struck by lightning and it felt like I was going down for good. I’ve hit some wind shears where the air vanished from under the wings and I plummeted thousands of feet in a few seconds. And, of course, the flight isn’t over quite yet. But whenever it does end I know I will land safely and there is a reason. A long time ago, I stopped trying to be the pilot of my own plane. I discovered that I couldn’t pilot my life any more than I could land a jet at O’Hare. So I gave the job to the only person who could handle it. He will get me home.
Listen to me, my friend. Wherever you are in the flight of your life, don’t try to make the final approach by yourself. I’d bet that you’ve been through a bunch of crash landings already. Each time you’ve managed to cobble the craft back together and get into the air and you may be proud of that fact. But the last landing won’t be that way. You can’t handle that one on your own and come down safely.
A long time ago, I gave the piloting of my life to Jesus Christ. I asked Him to forgive me for all my stupid crashes and destruction and the sin that had caused them. He forgave me and took the senior pilot’s chair. (He’s a gentleman and never demands it. You have to ask.)
I have one more Homecoming ahead and it will be the greatest one of all. Like the last one, my parents will be there and my little sister. Virginia doesn’t have Down Syndrome anymore. We’re going to have that long talk that we could never have in this world. And there will be so many other friends there too, people who let Jesus take them through the final landing. Most of all, I will see the King who was the pilot of my life and experience His forgiveness, grace and mercy forever.
The great 19th century Christian evangelist, D. L. Moody, wrote some words that I am going to steal and apply to myself.
Some day you will read (probably on Facebook) that Coleman Luck is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. At that moment, I will be more alive than I am now. I will have gone up higher, that’s all, out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal, a body that death cannot touch and sin cannot taint, a body like Jesus’ glorious Body. That which is born of the flesh will die. That which is born of His Spirit will live forever.
Think of it this way, for me the long flight and the long battle will be over. Finally, finally, another old soldier will be home.
To all of my brothers and sisters in arms who have served in the militaries of the free world on this Veterans Day 2017, I salute you and wish you every joy. And to all my brothers and sisters who have been faithful servant warriors carrying the love of Jesus Christ into a lost world – happy Veterans Day to you … forever.
By God’s grace alone – personal awards and decorations: Bronze Star – Valor, Bronze Star – Meritorious service in a combat zone, 3 Army Commendation medals – Valor, the Air Medal – for combat assaults by helicopter, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.