Learning Important Lessons About Life…
From a U-2 Pilot

We can learn important lessons about life from unexpected people and places. This is one of my most important learnings…from an unexpected person and one of the remotest places in the world, the North Pole. Allow me to explain the backstory. I was a sophomore at Muskingum College in the fall of 1962. The Soviet Union had started to construct a missile base in Cuba. President Kennedy blockaded all shipping from entering Cuban waters. Thus, the Cuban Missile Crisis began.

I remember thinking that, by Thanksgiving, we would be at war with the USSR. I honestly didn’t think that I would be a student much longer. Actually, I wasn’t sure that I would be alive along with millions of others in America or in Russia in less than a month. It seemed like the doomsday clock was about to strike midnight.

On October 27th, a pilot at the Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska took off on just another routine surveillance flight. His name was Capt. Charles Maultsby. His mission was to fly his U-2 plane, Dragon Lady, to get a sample of radioactivity in the atmosphere due to nuclear testing of the Soviets in that area. Maultsby was to fly toward Russia and return. It was an eight-hour mission and a seemingly boring one at that.

This was Dragon Lady.

Dragon Lady

This was Capt. Charles Maultsby.

Charles Maultsby

As the rest of the world teetered on the verge of a nuclear Armageddon, Maultsby took off on what he considered nothing more than a routine flight. As he flew close to the Arctic Circle the plane’s compass became useless due to the magnetic field around the area of the North Pole. All the pilots knew how to fly with a malfunctioning compass. They all learned how to determine where they were and where they wanted to go by merely getting their bearing from the North Star. However, the aurora borealis that evening danced all over the skies. Therefore, Maultsby had trouble getting his bearings from the North Star due to the northern lights.

While it was an inconvenience determining where he was, Maultsby finished collecting air samplings and turned back to the airbase. He noted in his journals, “Turn left for 90 degrees, and then immediately reverse the turn for 270 degrees until you are heading back along your same track, only in the opposite direction.”

In addition, Maultsby was looking for another plane to signal him and assist him to the base. Neither Maultsby nor the other plane could find each other. However, he could hear a radio station in Russia, which meant that he was flying over the USSR. In fact, he was at least 300-miles into Russia. Now, he knew that he was lost somewhere in the Chukotka Peninsula. However, the Russians knew precisely where he was, and they scrambled their MiGs to shoot down his U-2. It didn’t take Maultsby long to realize that several MiGs were coming to get him.

He attempted to avoid being shot down and/or run out of fuel. His mission was to be an eight-hour flight, and it was now nine hours. In addition, he was several hundred miles into USSR. He decided to fly at over 70,000 feet, which was 10,000 feet higher than the MiGs could fly. Then he shut down his plane to save his fuel. Essentially, he gilded Dragon Lady to the nearest airfield in Alaska.

The next day, Khrushchev agreed to withdraw missiles from Cuba. He also mentioned the U-2 flight could have been seen by them as a plane with nuclear weapons onboard. He said, “One of your planes violates our frontier during this anxious time we are both experiencing when everything has been put into combat readiness. Is it not a fact that an intruding American plane could be easily taken for a nuclear bomber, which might push us to a fateful step?” After Arthur Schlesinger reflected upon those events in Cuba and near the North Pole as “the most dangerous moment in human history.” That Saturday has gone done in history as Black Saturday.

One of the people who helped return the world from the brink of a nuclear firestorm was Maultsby. Each time he faced a new situation, he attempted to process the problem and then tried to maneuver around it. That is what I learned about life from him. Most people can face one problem and to continue on. However, he had a list of several presenting problems starting with the U-2’s compass to attempting to avoid MiGs while conserving fuel. That is my takeaway from his thinking through his various potentially life-threatening situation. Face the facts and carry on.

Maultsby is the back story—a teaching moment. Maultsby was able to put words with his actions. I have done what Maultsby did, but he articulated it so that I could see the parallels with my responses and actions.

For example, two years ago, I went back to Myanmar. I still would like to interview Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Lady, but this trip was to see my family. I had the time of my life. I love them. There are all loving, caring, and always willing to help me in any way. Each of them possesses unique abilities about which I admire.

A couple days before I had to say good-bye to my family, I was talking to Ti Ti. I told her that I would be returning to America, download my photos and videos from my laptop and put it on my bookcase in my office. I spend my life on a computer. I teach online, I write essays for my website, and do about everything on it from shopping to researching. I couldn’t function without my computer. I have two large screen monitors, which I wish were larger and that I had a third monitor. A laptop would be better than nothing, but that is all…better than nothing.

Then I said to Ti Ti either I will put it away or give it to her. That was a no brainer; I wouldn’t have used it. She thanked me and added that we could email each other while I am in the States. Nonetheless, my gift created two problems. The first was that my gift had limited use. The Internet reception is severely limited. The reason for my gift was that it could help Ti Ti get ahead in this world educationally. A computer was the best tool that a school could use to help the teachers educate the next generation.

The second problem is that if Ti Ti is a part of my family, the kids with whom she and her sisters attend school are my extended family. That problem haunted me…for a while. If they are my grandchildren, then I need to do whatever I can, especially in education.

If I care about my family, I am obligated to care for their friends. I asked Moh Moh how many of those children have access to a computer. She wrote back that less than 10% of children in the two schools where her children attend have access to one. That problem can be resolved by getting 1250 laptops for the two schools in Taunggyi for all the students to use.

All that I needed to do was to start a not-for-profit charity and apply to the IRS for that designation. Great. Well, just as the IRS received my request, Trump shutdown the government, which lasted for two months. Finally, I received that designation. That was accomplished early this year.

The next problem was to create a GoFundMe campaign, which took longer than I wanted, and it was crunch time. It started the drive at the end of March, and I have raised just over $1000 and need a half million for the laptops and improved Internet speed and reception. At that rate, I won’t be able to raise all the money needed for the 1250 laptops with about four months before I return to Myanmar.

Then Ginger, my Irish Setter, had to be taken to Purdue Veterinary Teaching Hospital for a couple of days observation. Their diagnosis was that she had irritable bowel syndrome. She has been on meds for two months and is back to her overly active two-year-old self. However, the number of visits to the local vet and the time at Purdue coupled with her new regimen has cut into my spare time drastically. I am still teaching and doing my webpage along with taking care of Ginger, which has really chewed up a great deal of time.

If Ginger’s medical issues weren’t enough, I had a couple medical issues that were not life threatening. Nevertheless, they took up whatever spare time I had. Ginger and I are getting back into our normal lives.

I was pining away to a good friend with whom I had worked years ago. We chat each week, and she is coming to visit me in Crown Point soon. I want to interview her for my website because of her traveling down the tunnel experience as a result on an accident in her car.

In response to my venting about my fundraising drive, she said that I should go to corporate donors. I agreed and told her about using Western Union and am working on a video to discuss We Are Family in Myanmar to the charitable foundation. I also will do a video for Jerome McDonnell who hosts Worldview on Chicago’s NPR station. He interviewed me in the past regarding Steve Biko and the Scottish independence movement.

And then it happened. With a long list of must do right away items and in the midst of a heat wave a couple weeks ago, my air conditioning died. The heat didn’t help Ginger’s recovery. The house was 85 degrees all day long. After attempts to repair it, I had to order another a/c unit just before the 4th of July. After not having any air conditioning for two weeks, finally two service persons came to install it. However, just before they arrived, I took my car out of the garage and parked it in front of my house just in case I needed to go somewhere while they were working without having them move their truck and van. They worked on switching the old a/c with a new one for a better part of the day and all was going well.

Nonetheless, somewhere in the middle of that day, a neighbor from across the street came to the front door. She apologized for backing into the rear driver’s side door. I told her to relax, and I’d get an estimate for the repair. However, I went down to Indy to visit my two young grandsons before I could get an estimate. After giving Jack and Owen their birthday gifts, I took them to the park and played for a couple hours. Then I brought them home and said goodbye to Jack and Owen. Jason, their father, walked me to my car and asked what happened to my back door. I explained but added that my car is a great beater car. It is over ten years old and has a quarter million miles on it.

In a serendipitous moment, I said that I wish that I could just take the repair money and live with the dent. Since I will visit my family in Myanmar during winter break, I wish that I could give them what I got from the neighbor’s car insurance. This was my first accident in sixty years of driving.

Jason said that I could do precisely that. He had had a truck that was old and had been dented due to a hailstorm. He said that I could merely take the check and use the money anyway that I wanted.

When State Farm, my insurance company and also my neighbor’s, called about the accident, I told the caller about my family. She wanted to know all about them after I answered her handful of questions. I gave her my web address, and she said that she would visit my site when she got home. The next day this person called my agent and talked about my Myanmar family and how much that I loved them. I’m going to do a video for State Farm and suggest the corporation consider donating to We Are Family in Myanmar.

Additionally, since I am going back in just over four months to visit my family, I’ll try to talk with the principal and teachers of one of the schools to get a more personal and firsthand point of view from them about the value of laptops as a teaching tool. Having a local educators explain how the children would benefit would help my fundraising drive.

While this dilemma isn’t something that I thought would be necessary to develop a new strategy, there I am doing precisely that. Interestingly, recall what Randy Pausch said about these types of walls, “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.”

Capt. Maultsby faced many walls on Dark Saturday nearly six decades ago. What did he do? Quit? No. He thought of various means to get over all of the walls. As a result of that determination, he saved his life that night along with tens of millions of others who would have died as a result of a nuclear war with Russia.