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Man-Up Lessons from the Gutsiest Guy I Know

You can’t escape the things that terrify you. So lean into them instead

Navy Pilot, Jim
Jim, 22, posing on the deck of the CV-61 USS Ranger

I was sitting in a pool in Florida, sipping on a margarita and listening to Jim, my father-in-law, talk about dodging surface-to-air missiles in Vietnam.

“Naw, I wasn’t afraid,” he told me, laughing. “What's the worst that could happen?"

Jim, who’s 81, has plenty of these stories. He enlisted in the Navy in 1967 and flew 150 combat missions during his 20-year military career. He’s seen some things.

So have his friends. His co-pilots—who have colorful callsigns like Shaky, Lurch, Fudge, Possum, and my personal favorite (and I swear this is true), The Phantom Fanny Pincher—have somehow faced down death countless times and lived to brag about it.

Every story begins the same way, with Jim or one of his fellow pilots muttering, “Oh shoot, I'm dead.” (It’s not shoot, it’s a less family-friendly word. It rhymes with hit.)

Jim had a few of those “Oh shoot, I'm dead” moments. Like the time he lost 2 inches of height after being ejected from a plane that was going down. Or that time he got so turned around during a mission, he looked out of his cockpit and saw trees above him.

But it’s the surface-to-air missiles that he’s still surprised never killed him.

“The problem with the A-7, especially when you’ve got 6,000 pounds of bombs on it, is that it’s not very maneuverable,” he explained, his head bobbing in the pool. During his Vietnam missions, when he noticed a missile heading straight toward him, he knew that trying to outrun it would only end with him getting blown out of the sky.

“So I turned into it,” he said.

It has something to do with g-force, a measure of acceleration. “The missile is coming at you at Mach 1.5 or 2, so it has no G available,” Jim explained. (I don’t know what that means either.)

“It can’t turn worth a damn,” he continued. “If it’s pointing at you, it’s gotta go to you. But you have the ability to turn and out-G it.”

Just before he collided with the missile, he’d turn up and avoid it, like the Road Runner outsmarting Wile E. Coyote. “Your brain doesn’t want to do it,” he admits. “But if you start thinking about it, you’re going to make a mistake. Just aim for the damn thing.”

Back in my 20s and 30s, Jim’s stories were just badass war tales, but they never resonated with me. In my 50s, they seem like life lessons.

I’ll never be in a situation where I’m staring down a missile (knock on wood), but I grapple with fears every day. Some of my fears are real—I’ve been avoiding my annual checkup because I’m worried my doctor will find something terminal—and some are just stupid. I’m afraid of elevators. Elevators! What kind of mama’s boy can’t get on an elevator without going weak in the knees?

I’ve had well-meaning friends tell me for years to “face my fears,” and it’s always felt sanctimonious and simplistic. You face your fears, jerk. But after a week of listening to my father-in-law’s war stories, I’ve found a better mantra: Steer toward the missile.

Need to have a difficult conversation with a relative and you hate conflict? Steer toward the missile. Time to ask your boss for a raise and you’re wrestling with impostor syndrome? Steer toward the missile. Not sure why your partner is pissed off? Steer … toward … the missile.

“I’d like to run some blood tests,” my doctor told me recently when I finally made that appointment.

“Oh shoot, I’m dead,” I muttered to myself. Except I didn’t say shoot. And when my blood tests came back, I wasn’t dead. I somehow survived again.

I’m a coward by nature. But sometimes, in my head, I’m a Navy pilot.

Photo credit: Courtesy Jim Lichtenwalter; Frame: Shutterstock
Follow Article Topics: Health-&-Fitness