By Thomas Calabrese Editor and Contributing Writer Greg Nielsen — Fred Rutherford was a journeyman plumber with a keen analytical mind, the kind of man that worked hard, followed orders and felt extremely uncomfortable when he had to be creative or take any initiative. If you wanted something fixed correctly, he was the man because he was meticulous and conscientious. Fred had been working at the Nielsen Plumbing Company for 15 years after retiring from the Navy as a pipefitter. He met his wife, Claudia toward the end of his naval career. She was a widow, working two jobs and struggling to support her four young children. One of those jobs was as an assistant manager at Sherwood’s Sandwich Shop near the Point Loma Naval base. They made great Reuben sandwiches and Fred would sometimes stop there to get one.
The casual friendship between Fred and Claudia slowly evolved to the point where Fred began going to the sandwich shop more to see Claudia than to get a Reuben. Before things could proceed, Claudia decided to be honest with the persistent sailor, “I have four children, I’m working two jobs and I don’t have time for frivolous activities or partying. If I was you, I’d stick to the sandwiches here, but get your desserts somewhere else.”
Fred thought for a moment, then smiled, “If I asked you to take a walk on the beach or see a movie, would that fall into your category of frivolous activities?”
Sometimes a relationship takes on a life of its own. Fred and Claudia exercised extreme caution, but the heart wants what it wants. They were married at the Bel Vino Winery in Temecula with Claudia’s four children, Jeff, Theresa, Virginia and Andrew in attendance. During the ceremony Fred said, “You have my sworn promise that I will always do my best to give you and your children a good home and a good life.”
Fred was a man of his word and throughout the years, he was a good provider and a mentor to his step-children. He worked overtime at every opportunity to help save money for his children’s futures. Claudia and Fred agreed that the children should learn the value of hard work so they incentivized them when they were young by making this offer, “Whatever you earn, we’ll match it.”
This often required Fred to put in many extra hours at his job, but he knew it was worth it. Once or twice a month, Fred and Claudia would take a leisurely drive to Alpine to have a late lunch at Janet Montana’s, a local restaurant. Once a year, Fred would go with several co-workers for a week-long fishing trip at Lake Martinez in Arizona. That was the extent of his recreational activities.
Claudia sometimes wished for more excitement in her life, but accepted the fact that her husband was not the spontaneous type. He was a creature of habit and loved following a routine. She was grateful for everything Fred did for her and the children and realized that if she needed a little adrenalin rush every now and then, she would have to do it alone or with her few friends. Over the years Claudia joined a scuba diving club, a fitness center and went mountain biking in Calaveras Hills in Carlsbad while Fred was at work.
The children eventually came to the conclusion that their step-father had no genuine interest in sports, entertainment or music. On the other hand, he could listen or talk for hours about practical matters. His mind was just wired that way. Claudia began to believe that her husband had a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome, associated with the obsession of repetitive patterns of behavior and interests and lack of empathy. She schooled her children on how to deal with someone with the affliction and the family adapted. The main thing they learned was not to take it personally if Fred showed a lack of emotion when they came to him with their problems.
Jeff learned many useful things from his step-father, like repairing just about anything in the house, fiscal responsibility, a tenacious work ethic and last but definitely not least, being patriotic. What he inherited from his mother was her strong emotional strength. She was always there for everybody and seldom asked for anything for herself. After serving six years in the Marine Corps, Jeff became a California Highway Patrol Officer and was stationed in Truckee, California. He met Lori Wagner an emergency room nurse while water skiing on Lake Tahoe. After they were married, Jeff accepted a transfer that came with a promotion to San Bernardino, California. San Bernadino is the largest county in the United States covering 20,105 square miles.
It was a big change from the Sierras to the Mojave Desert but Jeff grew to like the solitude of his patrol sector. One of his hobbies besides dirt bike riding and fishing was painting and sketching desert landscapes. His artwork was mesmerizing, unique and possessed a spiritual quality. When his son Alex was born, Jeff made an effort to nourish the child’s imagination by exposing him to art as soon as the boy could hold a pencil and paintbrush.
Lori reminded her husband, “Don’t put any pressure on him. You told me how it was when you were growing up, so don’t overcompensate.”
“Point taken, I would never do that. I just want our son to know that all options are on the table for him. Here’s the way that I’m doing this. If he’s interested in something, then I’ll encourage him, but if he’s not…then I drop it. For example, I took him fishing twice at Lake Martinez and now Alex told me that he doesn’t want to go anymore. That’s fine with me, I hope that proves something to you,” Jeff said.
“Yes it does… I guess” Lori smiled, “You don’t mind if I watch you to make sure you don’t slip up?”
Jeff grinned, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
By the time Alex was five years old, he was drawing and painting on his own without any encouragement from his father. There was a time when Fred and Claudia came to visit and Fred saw the paintings and drawings of his grandson and commented to Jeff, “I wished I could have given you a better childhood. I know that I failed you and your siblings and I apologize for that.”
Jeff saw that his step-father was as upset as he had ever seen him and consoled him, “You don’t hear me complaining. You did your best and we all knew it. We are all better people because you were in our lives back then and because you are in them right now.”
Alex ran up to his grandfather and showed him a painting that he had just drawn. Fred looked at it with keen analytical eyes, “This is really good.”
When his grandson ran off to play, Fred turned to Jeff and quipped, “Maybe you’re right…maybe I didn’t do such a bad job… after all, look at the great relationship that you have with your son. You don’t mind if I take a little credit for that?”
Jeff responded with a sly grin, “Sure…take as much as you want…we’ll give the rest to mom.”
Alex was a well-adjusted child who had an insatiable curiosity about the world around him. He was as comfortable being around his grandfather and learning about construction and mechanical issues as he was painting, drawing, writing, taking photos or learning to play the guitar. One of the games that Alex liked to play with his father was to banter back and forth using clichés, proverbs, famous quotes, movie lines and song lyrics.
Alex commented, “What do you hear, what do you say Sergeant?”
“Another day, another dollar,” Jeff responded.
“Better than being penny wise and pound foolish.”
“You’ve got to play them as they lay,” Jeff added.
“And know when to hold them and when to fold ‘em,” Alex said.
“Playing solitaire until dawn with a deck of 51.”
“Can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Alex said.
“Every cloud has a silver lining,” Jeff retorted.
Alex snapped back, “Baby the rain must fall.”
“What’s for dinner?” Jeff inquired.
“Cut it in fours because I’m hungry enough to eat for six,” Jeff said.
“When you come to a fork in the road…take it.”
Alex took off in a sprint and jumped over the couch on his way to the dining room, “A lion runs the fastest when he is hungry.”
By the time Jeff made it to the living room, Alex already had a slice of pizza in his hand. Jeff smiled, “Touche’, Cliché Kid.”
Lori entered from the kitchen and saw her husband and son trying to act innocent, “I suppose it wouldn’t do any good to tell you not to play at the table?”
Alex had an extreme aversion to being in the limelight. Or at the least, he just did not like being the center of attention. It is possible that he inherited the trait from his father or learned it from watching his grandfather. These were two men who did their jobs without fanfare or accolades. In high school, Alex would deliberately miss questions on an exam so that he wouldn’t be singled out as the smartest student in his class, being content to be in the upper ten per cent. He had above average athletic ability, and when he went out for football, he chose to try out for cornerback and punter, far less glamorous positions than quarterback or receiver. In basketball, he was a workmanlike point guard who enjoyed passing to his teammates so that they could score, rather than shooting the ball himself. In baseball, he was the pro-typical lead-off hitter with a keen eye for the strike zone, who rarely struck out. When Alex stepped up to the plate, he was laser focused on reaching base, whether it was by drawing a walk, hitting a Texas leaguer (a pop fly that falls to the ground between the infield and the outfield and results in a base hit)or a laying down a well-placed bunt. After he reached first base, Alex often stole second to get into scoring position, so that the hitters that followed could drive him home.
After graduating from Barstow High School, Alex had no desire to attend college, despite his excellent grades and athletic abilities. He was brought up in a strong family environment where he was encouraged by his parents and his grandfather to be the best man that he could be. His father often reminded him, “This is your life, not mine, and not your grandfather’s. We can tell you what we know and what we feel, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it our way. If I’ve done my job correctly as your father, you’ll make your own decisions and have the courage to stand by them…right or wrong.”
College didn’t offer Alex anything that he couldn’t get on his own or through on-line courses. The current cancel culture was in direct conflict with his beliefs. He was pro-America, pro-military and pro-law enforcement. Alex was grateful and respectful of the sacrifices that previous generations endured to protect and serve this country. If the day ever came that those values changed, he’d re-evaluate his position, but right now these were his core beliefs and he was proud of them.
His grandfather was retired Navy and his father served in the Marine Corps, but for Alex the Air Force seemed like the best option for him. They offered a path for him to be a pilot through the Rated Preparatory Program. Alex completed the avionics technician course where he learned to work on aircrafts, satellites and spacecraft. His expertise included all aspect of electronics, communications and navigation systems vital to the operation of the aircraft. After four years in the Air Force, Alex requested a transfer to the 24th Special Operations Wing (SOW) at Hurlburt Field, located on the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida Panhandle, 35 miles east of Pensacola. The 24th SOW is the only special tactics wing in the Air Force. By this time Alex was a pilot and qualified to fly AC-130J/W, MC-130H, CV-22, U-28A, MQ-9 and C-146A, all aircrafts assigned to the Wing.
He developed a close friendship with Master Sergeant Vernon Smith, a pararescueman. The two men often hung out when they weren’t on a mission or training. It was 0615 hours when the 24th SOW got the distress call and the team scrambled to get airborne.
Air Force Pilot, Captain Ted Whitney was flying a routine reconnaissance over the jungles of Honduras when he was shot down by a stinger missile by elements of the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah, operating in the Central American country.
The pilot was currently in evade and escape protocol as the terrorist group was in hot pursuit. Time was of the essence in reaching the American before he could be captured. The terrain was rocky and heavily foliated. While homing in on the radio beacon, Alex got the aircraft into position and Master Sergeant Smith and his team parachuted out at an altitude of five thousand feet.
The mission plan was for the pararescue team to reach the downed pilot and get him to the extraction point. It was a clearing that would require expert aviation skills to land on. The rescue team cut through the jungle growth and eventually found Captain Whitney lying semi-conscious next to a large boulder. He had cracked three ribs and twisted his right knee when he landed. He was also exhausted and dehydrated. The pararescuemen performed emergency first-aid, including giving the pilot an IV with much needed fluids.
Master Sergeant Smith radioed, “Cliché Kid, this is Rock Bottom, we have the package and we’re moving toward echo popa” (extraction point).
This specially modified C-130, had a smaller wingspan, heavily reinforced landing gear and large oversized tires so that it could land on grassy fields and rocky terrain.
Alex responded, “Rock Bottom, this is Cliché Kid, confirmed last transmission. Keep me posted of your progress.”
“Roger that,” Master Sergeant Smith replied.
Alex requested a tanker for in-air refueling and continued to circle the area. The terrorists were working with the MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) gang, one of the most powerful in Honduras. With several hundred men searching for the downed pilot, they were able to cut off the extraction route of the pararescue team.
Master Sergeant Smith radioed after he assessed the situation, “Cliché Kid, this is Rock Bottom, over.”
“Go Rock Bottom,” Alex radioed back.
“We can’t make it to the LZ… request alternate site, preferably one to the southwest.”
Alex responded, “I’ll get back to you with the coordinates.”
Alex turned to his co-pilot, “Access satellite photos of area.”
The plane’s avionics were modified to receive that type of Intel. Photos were quickly downloaded to a large screen that popped up from the floor. In a matter of seconds, Alex scrolled through a hundred of them before he found what it wanted. “This is it,” and pointed to the screen…”radio these coordinates to Rock Bottom.”
The area in question was a tree lined two–lane highway. Master Sergeant Smith, his team and the injured pilot waited in the thick brush for their ride home.
Senior Airman Chris Tremaine was apprehensive, “This is a tight fit for a landing. Do you think that the Cliché Kid can make it?”
“Just be ready to go when he gets here,” Master Sergeant responded impatiently.
The faint sound of an airplane’s propellers could be heard in the distance, growing ever louder. Alex landed and the wings of the aircraft only cleared the trees on both sides by less than 18 inches. He hit the brakes hard and quickly came to a stop. The parerescue team and injured pilot were on onboard in less than a minute. Not a second too soon, because trucks filled with terrorists and MS-13 gang members approached from both directions.
Alex pushed the throttle handles down and the Williams FJ44 turbofan engines responded with maximum power. While racing toward the approaching trucks and a head-on crash seeming inevitable, Alex unleashed the full wrath of the 20mm cannon mounted in the nose of the aircraft and turned three of the trucks into flaming piles of metal debris. He cleared them by several feet and flew through the black smoke into the clear blue skies.
One of the other advantages that Alex had over other pilots besides his excellent flying skills was that he had come up the ranks working on aircraft. He knew every inch of his plane and how it would respond in every circumstance. The engineers and designers built this plane for general use, but Alex knew where he could make improvements to suit the needs of Special Ops missions. In his hands, the controls were merely an extension of his body.
On the ground, a terrorist fired a Stinger missile at the departing C-130 and Alex picked it up on radar. He yelled to the men in the back of the aircraft, “Strap in…things are going to get rough for a while.”
The co-pilot nervously asked, “What are we going to do?”
“When the world gives you lemons…make lemonade,” Alex smiled and put the aircraft into a death dive. The Stinger missile was rapidly closing the distance. At the last moment, Alex pulled back on the controls and the plane missed crashing by less than fifty feet. Skimming over the ground, Alex headed directly toward the enemy vehicles parked along the highway. The Stinger missile was now less than 25 feet away from the tail section of the C-130. Just as the C-130 was ready to crash into the vehicles on the ground or be hit by the missile, Alex went into a steep climb and the missile was unable to make the necessary adjustment in such a short time frame and it slammed into a truck and exploded.
As Alex set course for home, Master Sergeant Smith walked up to the cockpit and commented, “What do you do for an encore, Maestro..,fly upside down through the Pearly Gates while serving refreshments to St Peter?”
Alex quipped, “Sometimes the best defense is a good offense.”
“I’ve heard them say that the difference between a pilot and an aviator is that a pilot is a technician and an aviator is an artist. Cliché Kid, you just drew a masterpiece,” Master Sergeant Smith touched Alex on the shoulder in a sign of friendship and respect.
The Cliché Kid was in his element, which was among a group of Unassuming Overachievers.
***This is a fiction . While it may have some facts in it, the reader should realize that the story was created by the writer for entertainment purposes.