I Finally Remember with Heart and Soul
Rick Fessenden was a college roommate of mine. A man with a giant heart and a boundless enthusiasm for life. A thespian. A singer. An avid pilot. A lover of an old Porsche. A member of a family with a strong commitment to each other. A fun loving chap. A good friend. A good person.
During college, I remember once that there was only one remaining piece of a coveted pie. I think it was apple. Rick and I had a tug of war match with the pie as the prize. Unfortunately, the pie on a plate was also the rope. When the inevitable occurred and the pie landed on the floor sans dish, Rick triumphantly scoped it up and consumed the treasure. All the while, he had a mischievous grin on his face.
As so often happens, friends go their own way building separate lives and come back into contact infrequently. But, if you were friends, and not just an acquaintance, something remains in your heart.
Rick entered the military service. Flying was always a part of Rick’s life. His grandfather was one of the first U.S. Marine aviators in WWI. His father, a U.S. Navy aviator, followed suit and flew transports over the hump into China. And so, it was no surprise that Rick joined the Navy and built a distinguished military aviation career, serving two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was one of those esteemed jet pilots whose planes had all of the armament removed and replaced with cameras. The photo missions were of the utmost importance. Here’s what former Navy man Scott Todd had to say:
I had the honor of being one of the enlisted crew members of VFP-63 Det 4 (Beam's Best) from the '72 cruise onboard the USS Oriskany (CVA-34). I was one of a very few individuals who was able to see the flying skills of pilots like LtCDMR Dave Beam and a very young (now deceased) LTjg Rick Fessenden. Pilots like those two would fly map coordinates so well it made my job as a PT3 very rewarding. As "Eyes of the Fleet" we watched so many trails, roadways and jungle areas for SAM's, AAA and targets of opportunity that I felt like I knew all of Vietnam from the sky. From the Photo Mates who professionally loaded and developed the film from the camera bays to the AE's, ADJ's and others who kept those planes flying, I hope you all will always appreciate how your contributions made our WestPac tours successful. Those Crusaders were always important to the saving of other pilots lives and making life miserable for the NVA and VC.
Rick once told me what a pucker factor it was to have the warning sound go off in his headset as the radar of a SAM missile locked onto his plane. Then to make matters worse, he’d look out and see a telephone pole with fire at its rear streaking in his direction. We’ve all had our little pucker factors in life, but not many of us have had to dodge missiles in the sky.
Rick and Judy did what many military couples do. They raised a family while moving from one assignment to another. Career-wise, he logged over 4000 hours flying and made 600 landings on air craft carriers. After 20 years in the Navy, Rick retired with the rank of Commander and began flying for one of the major airlines. That’s quite a feather in the cap for a hot-shot jet fighter pilot to transition to flying those huge Greyhound buses in the sky. It just goes to show how much confidence his new employers had in him. But, Rick just loved to fly fast and do things your average pilot can only dream of doing. To that end, he also became a test pilot flying the Berkut experimental plane. Rick told me that the Berkut was the closest thing that he could get to an F-18. Or was it an F-16? I’m not sure. At any rate, the Berkut is apparently a hot flying machine. Rick died flying the Berkut in an air-show.
Writing about the pain and the healing process, Judy said this:
Our family friends helped us to laugh through our tears by sharing one funny story about Rick after another. It made the pain bearable. I felt a sense of relief when they stopped by to invite our kids out for an ice cream cone, shopping, or some time in the surf.
Friends and relatives cannot remove loss from memory, but they can surely help survivors prevent it from crippling their lives.
I know what Judy says is true because my friend, the father of a soldier lost in Iraq, thanked me for coming to the funeral and repast. In his pain he said, “I hoped that you would be here.” And he said, “I can’t tell you what someone said to me two minutes ago, but I do remember the hugs and the looks.”
The grief experience is lifelong. Treading through it, or walking with another in their grief, however, expands the human experience. Grief doesn't go away, but with the help of community it finds its place in our lives.
Twelve years ago this month, Rick died at an air-show on a Saturday. I went to the air- show the following day and stood there looking out over the riverbed where my friend had crashed the previous day. They performed a missing man formation, and I hurt. Then I began shutting down the pain. By the day of the funeral, I was numb. Shortly thereafter, the emotions were tucked away and only the intellectual acknowledgment remained.
I’ve been going through a transition period. That period commenced when I became a massage therapist 8 years ago and began to perceive open doors of which I literally had no prior concept. I believe it is the perfect antidote to the battering and shielding caused by my primary career working in a violent world.
Judy, Rick’s death was locked away protectively in my heart. But, I am in a new place now, and you have set it free allowing me to again have the opportunity to address his death emotionally.
I am sorry Judy. I was there for the funeral and hugs, but I did not do anything more. I wish I had really been there for you and the family.
Links in this Blog:
In grief listening can speak volumes
Aviation Enthusiast Corner
Spittin’ Anger Quenched by Tears