Brogan’s Heroes — The tale of the army pilot.

15 Sep

The story goes that the man was simply sitting in his kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee one morning and generally minding his own business when it happened.

All was peaceful outside. The man lived in a house that could only be described as showing the obvious trappings of success. The house was in a good neighbourhood, was spacious with several bedrooms and public rooms, had a sweeping lawn outside — all of which would make it the envy of many a passer by.

Apparently, as he drank his coffee and read his newspaper, he was faintly aware of what was going on outside. There were the usual traffic noises, he could hear a helicopter buzzing overhead somewhere, he could hear kids — maybe his kids– playing and making the noises that kids make when lost in completely innocent play.

So he drank his coffee and continued reading.

Then, something changed.

Surely the helicopter was getting louder?

In fact so loud that it must be very low, and on checking out the window the man could see that trees and bushes were now bending in the wake of the wind being created by the rotor blades.

In the time the man took to utter the words ” What the Fuck?” sure enough a commercial chopper appeared as if from nowhere and literally came to rest on the man’s well manicured lawn as he looked on from his kitchen in a mixture of amazement, fear and complete fury.

Just who did the pilot think he was landing on the lawn?

Before the rotor blades stopped spinning, the door of the helicopter opened and the pilot stepped out. He was alone in the chopper and so was clearly to blame for the unexpected arrival. He was not accompanied nor apparently acting on anyone’s instructions in deciding to set the helicopter down in the man’s garden.

There was no sign of distress in either the pilot or the helicopter and so there was no suggestion that this was an emergency landing. The helicopter was an old one and its decal showed that it belonged to a company based in Louisiana called Petroleum Helicopter’s International.

Whoever he was, this pilot had just decided to land his rickety old helicopter in the man’s garden without a by your leave, and the man was not best chuffed.

As for the pilot himself?

Well he emerged from the Helicopter wearing boots, denim jeans and a shirt. He had a mop of unruly thick hair, stood about 5’10” tall, was bearded and looked like a bum who had just got out of a helicopter! In later years the householder would swear that when the pilot emerged from the helicopter he was carrying a bottle of beer! In contrast, the pilot would always claim that this was definitely not so, stating that you never ever flew one of those things with a drink in you—- NEVER!

What you would never guess from the pilot’s appearance was that this was a dyed in the wool, 3rd generation military man.

The pilot was the son and grandson of distinguished forces stock with his father in particular reaching the rank of a US Air Force Major General complete with stars, stripes, medals and bars.

The Pilot himself had been raised “an army brat” and had eventually seen 5 years in the services rising to the rank of captain. He had served in the 8th Infantry “pathfinder” division of the US Army and had successfully completed the 61 day Ranger School . For those who don’t know, The US Ranger School is where certain members of the US Armed forces are trained in special ops and put through a series of courses and tasks which taxes the participants to the point of death!

The courses include airborne assaults, desert survivals, mountaineering training, swamp tests, Water survival tests, Ambush scenarios, Assault scenarios, Physical tests ( 49 push ups in 2 minutes, 59 sit ups in 2 minutes, 5 mile run ( with gear ) in under 40 minutes, Psychological and Mental tests ( effectively simulating torture ), Demolition training, leadership techniques and training, and all sorts of other things some of which have now been stopped as they are seen as inhumane!

Following the completion of Ranger School, a student will usually find himself “in the worst shape of his life”. Military folk wisdom has it that Ranger School’s physical toll is like years of natural ageing; high levels of  stress, along with prolonged sleep deprivation ( training is 20 hours per day ) and continual physical strain, inhibit full physical and mental recovery throughout the course.

Common maladies during the course include weight loss, dehydration, trench foot, heat stroke, frostbite, chilblains, fractures, tissue tears (ligaments, tendons, muscles), swollen hands, feet, knees, nerve damage, loss of limb sensitivity, cellulitis, contact dermatitis, cuts, and insect, spider, bee, and wildlife bites.

In short, to complete Ranger Training you have to be one tough son of a bitch — and one had just landed a helicopter on the man’s lawn!

However, by the time he landed the helicopter on the lawn, the pilot had turned his back on the military life — a decision which would cause a rift with his entire family as his parents saw it as a decision which rejected everything they stood for and believed in. It was a rift of such force, it would never heal.

Before going into the military, the Pilot of the helicopter had graduated from San Mateo High School in California, and had gone on to attend Pomona College in Claremont California. Pomona is ranked as one of the most exclusive colleges in America and is noted for its liberal arts faculty. To say that it is an exclusive college is an understatement, as on average it accepts only 13% of applicants and the average class size is just 15.

The college has a superb academic reputation and an enviable sports reputation. Many of its alumni would go on to work in Law and Government, Business and Finance, Education, Health and medicine and all the major professions.

However, the pilot– who graduated from Pomona Summa Cum Lauda with a BA in Literature would follow none of these paths.

However, while at the college he was to feature on the cover of Sports Illustrated Magazine as one of their ” Faces in the Crowd” for 1958 celebrating his athletic prowess in the fields of Rugby, Boxing ( He had featured in the Golden Gloves ), American Football and track and field.

The Sports Illustrated “Faces in the Crowd” feature was used for years to celebrate unknown amateur athletes or young athletes who would go on to make their mark or set records in a big way. Other “Faces in the crowd” from around the same time included Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Unser, Bobby Fischer, Al Oerter, Billy Jean King, Wilma Rudolph and Arthur Ashe.

Whilst at Pomona, the pilot would be instrumental in reviving the Claremont Colleges Rugby Club of California which has remained a Southern California rugby dynasty and institution.

From Pomona, the pilot earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Merton College Oxford where he studied for several years gaining a Bachelor of Philosophy to add to his literature degree from Pomona. He also gained an Oxford Blue for boxing whilst in England. From Oxford, he proceeded into the US Army where he learned to fly a helicopter at Fort Rucker in Alabama, completed Ranger School, before being sent with the 8th Infantry to West Germany on active oversees duty at the height of the cold war.

When his tour of duty came to an end in 1965, he was offered a professorship at West Point where he was asked to teach English Literature and Philosophy.

However, he had already decided on another course altogether, and it was his decision to turn his back on the military and academia which lead to the permanent estrangement from his family.

Instead, our Pilot had decided on another lifestyle entirely– a course that would lead him to land a helicopter on someone else’s lawn out of the blue one day and risk the consequences!

Having left behind some of the finest educational establishments in the world, and a cosy career as a military academic which could have led to politics, the diplomatic corps or who knows what, the Pilot had headed down to Tennessee ( by this time  with a wife and child in tow ) where he held down a number of manual jobs before he took up a position as a janitor sweeping the floors at Columbia Studios in Nashville Tennessee. However, the janitor’s job did not pay enough to keep house and home, and so every second week he would move on down to Louisiana where he would fly service helicopters out to the rigs situated in the Gulf of Mexico. After a one week stint on the chopper, he would resume his sweeping duties in Nashville.

It was while he was at Columbia that he had first met the man with the house. The man was already a living legend in many respects, and respected as someone who was at the very top of his profession. A touch on the wild side, and definitely not someone to be trifled with, the janitor come pilot had approached the man at Colombia in an attempt to pitch his talents with a view to impressing the man and getting in tow with him.

Alas the man had looked at what the pilot had to offer, considered the proposition and had said politely but firmly, ” Thanks- but no thanks!”.

It was this rejection that had led the Pilot to take the extreme step of having another go by simply turning up one day in the helicopter and setting down unannounced on the man’s lawn.

So— Imagine the scene:

The owner of the house is drinking his coffee when a great big helicopter suddenly lands in the garden and the be-denimed, bearded, bum looking pilot gets out of the cockpit carrying a parcel and starts to stroll up the lawn. In one telling of this story, the owner of the house comes out of the house carrying a shot-gun such is his disgruntlement at the helicopter descending onto his property.

The gun carrying owner is a somewhat shocked and annoyed Johnny Cash — a man not noted in the mid 1960’s for his patience and understanding.

He is met on his lawn, by the boot wearing janitor with the degrees from Oxford and Pomona, the graduate from US Ranger School, the former US Army Captain, Oxford Blue and Sports Illustrated cover boy who simply extends his hand as cool as you like and says:

” Hi, my name is Kris Kristofferson and I wonder if you would listen to some more of my songs?”.

The above is just one version of the story about the unknown Kristofferson landing a helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn.

Kristofferson is on record saying that as far as he recalled Cash might not even have been there at all ( which Cash denied ) and Cash alleges that Kristofferson got out of the chopper and offered the beer as well as a tape of songs ( which Kristofferson denies ).

What can’t be denied is that the incident took place and that Cash once again listened to songs written by the academic janitor.

Among the songs that he heard was one song among several that Kristofferson had written while his legs had been dangling off the edge of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico — it was called Sunday Morning Coming Down, which Cash would later claim he sort of made his own for a number of years.

Before he ever became a performer of any note himself, Kris Kristofferson would write songs which various other people then sang and turned into hits. In 1966, Dave Dudley released a successful Kristofferson single, “Viet Nam Blues”.  Within the next few years, more Kristofferson originals hit the charts, performed by Roy Drusky (“Jody and the Kid”); Billy Walker & the Tennessee Walkers (“From the Bottle to the Bottom”); Ray Stevens (“Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”); Jerry Lee Lewis (“Once More with Feeling”); Faron Young (“Your Time’s Comin'”); and Roger Miller (“Me and Bobby McGee”, “Best of all Possible Worlds”, “Darby’s Castle”).

Kristofferson would eventually achieve some success as a performer himself, when Johnny Cash’s introduced him as a singer songwriter at the Newport Folk Festival.

Yet Kristofferson was never going to be the greatest singer songwriter. He did not have the most pitch perfect voice and to be fair his guitar skills were never those of a six string maestro.

Notwithstanding his limitations as a performing artist, over the next few decades any number of people would take and record Kristofferson compositions and turn them into huge hits earning him substantial royalties.

Beyond Johnny Cash, other luminaries such as Janice Joplin, Perry Como, Ray Price, Joe Simon, Bobby Bare, Jerry Lee Lewis, O.C Smith, Patti Page, Willie Nelson, and many many more took his songs and turned them into standards. One by one, the leading artists of the day brought their interpretation to Kristofferson’s lyrics, emotions and general ability to tell a story and teach a lesson with his words.

He had become a lecturer in literature and philosophy after all.

In 1971, Kristofferson swept through the Grammy’s with several of his songs being nominated with Help Me Make It Through the Night being awarded Country Song of the year.

It would be easy from here to recount his successes in terms of awards and nominations. It would be just as easy to describe how he broke into acting, starred in films directed by Dennis Hopper and Sam Pekinpah and went on to play the lead role opposite Barbara Streisand in the hugely successful remake of a Star is Borne ( an experience he described as tougher than any boot camp ) for which he won a Golden Globe award and later films like Convoy and others.

He was also nominated for an Oscar for his original score for the film songwriter.

At one time, Kristofferson could do no wrong in terms of music and film.

Yet, all of that ignores his drinking and how he made his way through  a few marriages including his marriage to Rita Coolidge, had several high-profile affairs including Janis Joplin and Streisand and Joan Baez, and how he eventually kicked the bottle and achieved a status as a songwriter poet with inclusion in various song writing halls of fame.

Interestingly,  Rita Coolidge’s ancestry is part Cherokee Indian and part Scots. Kristofferson’s grandfather was in the Swedish Army, but his mother’s line was Scottish/Irish.

Since 1983 he has been married to Lisa Meyers and together they have 5 children ( in all he has 8 kids ) and he now lives a tough old life on the Islands of Hawaii.

Kristofferson is now 77 years of age and still tours regularly. He became part of the county supergroup ” The Highwaymen” along with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, but continues to travel playing solo concerts with just his guitar, his music stand and his voice.

As I have said, he is not the greatest solo artist in the world but what cannot be denied is that he has an unmistakable presence and a unique style — the last time he was in Glasgow he played to a packed Royal Concert  Hall and did not make it to the end of the first song before stopping to tell the assembled audience that George W Bush was an asshole!

President Clinton did not escape his wrath either as the former military man and Ranger condemned drone attacks in Iraq which killed innocent men, women and children, and was able to cite poets and songwriters as among those who  had perished.

However, perhaps the point of this long diatribe is to tell a tale of someone else entirely — then maybe it is not!

Roddy Hart is less than half the age of Kris kristofferson and went to University graduating with a Law Degree — well nobody is perfect!

However, he decided against a career in the law and instead chose a music career like Kristofferson and so far the ” Boy has done good” with successful albums and of course his own Radio show on Radio Scotland.

However, a while back when he was less well known he took the mad notion to send some demo recordings to………… Kris Kristofferson…… although not really expecting much chance of receiving a reply.

To his surprise, the once bum like pilot and Oxford Scholar did reply, invited Hart to Hawaii and recorded one of his songs.

Since then the two have become great friends.

Perhaps Roddy Hart didn’t land a helicopter in Kristofferson’s garden but the similarity is there.

It could be argued that Kristofferson’s most famous lyric says” Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to do” yet he has said that when his time comes he wants to be buried under a stone which contains another songwriters lyrics….. another songwriter of a similar age, who dated some of the same women and who made his way in the music business around the same time as Kris Kristofferson.

The lyrics concerned come from Leonard Cohen and they perhaps some up Kris Kristofferson’s attitude to life from a very early age:

Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

However, before he is ready to lie beneath the headstone he is about to release his umpteenth studio album and is involved in touring it around Europe. Incidentally, I did hear a story which said that Kristofferson preferred to drive between Gigs with his family in a great big Winnebago, which he would also sleep in at night rather than stay in hotels etc like other major acts.

Roddy Hart and his band the Lonesome Fire are also touring, indeed three of them made a wee pit stop and performed an acoustic set in Fopp on Byres Road on Saturday!

However at the end of the month Roddy Hart will play an acoustic set on his own in Glasgow……… and he will be accompanied by a septuagenarian who once landed a helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn!

Two days later, the pair will again team up for a repeat performance in downtown Wick.

Whether they will travel from Glasgow to Wick by way of helicopter is not known.

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5 Responses to “Brogan’s Heroes — The tale of the army pilot.”

  1. Dermot September 15, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

    Good blog pal…esp wi one arm…well done

  2. Carntyne Riddrie (@Riddrie) September 16, 2013 at 10:05 am #

    “Quality”… as they say in Glesga. :mrgreen:

  3. charliebhoy September 16, 2013 at 10:36 am #

    who’d a thunked it nice one thanks ta bandit

  4. dan063 September 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

    Wonderful inventive interesting story.

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