In Vietnam I was a UH1- Huey helicopter repairman. I am not really mechanically inclined, but with so many helicopters in Vietnam the army could not be picky. As I look back, I actually, (if I do say so myself), performed quite well, in spite of what follows.
My first few months were spent developing skills as part of a six-man maintenance crew, working on helicopters rolled in for periodic maintenance. Upon completion, the ship underwent a test flight before returning to action. As a rule, two team members, along with the team leader participated. I loved to fly, and volunteered every time I could.
Well into one flight, the crew simultaneously smelled a strong odor of gas. If you are at all familiar with a Huey, you have seen pictures of the door gunners sitting to the back of the cabin, facing outward, behind an M-60 machine gun. I was in the right door gunner’s seat. The left door gunner looked outside and immediately stated, “We’re smoking”. I checked my side of the ship, and realized that what appeared as smoke, was actually jet fuel over spraying the engine. From our view we were in danger of a catastrophe.
Our location made an immediate landing unsafe, as at the time, our flight was along the South China Sea coastline. Wooded areas, and fishing villages adjacent to the beach, made it impossible to know who was in the woods or villages. The captain thought it best to fly to a secure clearing we called the brown spot. This prompted a discussion among the crew, and we all agreed that we would rather risk an explosion, than become prisoners of war.
How long that flight lasted I do not remember, but it was long enough for a couple of things to happen. First, our mayday resulted in an escort, formed by other aircraft in the area. Second, I prayed several long forgotten prayers from my youth. The saying that there are no atheists in foxholes extends to doomed aircraft as well.
Many of the details between identifying our dilemma, and its successful resolution, were at the same time nerve-wracking, exciting, and borderline humorous. For the sake of time and space, let me say that we successfully landed at the Brown Spot, and what followed was a turning point in my life.
Before getting to that, I need to explain what happened. On a Huey, the engine fuel filter, and the transmission oil filter are one in the same. That filter may serve a dual function, but the O-rings used to prevent leaks, are different. Inside the box with the filter, are two separate packets of O-rings. One is labeled “OIL”, and the other is labeled “FUEL”. It was obvious to everyone, that the wrong O-ring had been installed.
At the Brown Spot, the pilot asked to see the “Gig Sheet”. Kept on a clipboard, this sheet recorded who performed specific maintenance work. I told the officer not to bother, as I knew that I had switched the O-rings, and that I had endangered the lives of the crew. I honestly do not remember his initial response, but I vividly remember what happened once the replacement filter arrived. The captain personally got the part from the supply helicopter, tossed the filter my way, and said, “Fix it, and this time do it right.”
It is difficult to describe my emotions at that moment. I was both cut to the heart, and motivated. Think of how differently the captain could have handled the situation. He could have given the filter to another mechanic, and said that he would deal with me later. He could have embarrassed me, and paraded my fault in front of others. The result would have been demoralizing. Instead, I experienced forgiveness. Forgiveness may seem a bit strong to some. They might say I just got off the hook. In my mind, “off the hook” leans to much towards escaping responsibility. Besides, using it ruins the rest of my story.
The Bible says that all have sinned. Using the wrong O-ring is my euphemism for sin. The Bible also says, that as long as we live we will continue switching O-rings. Jesus forgave a woman caught in adultery; telling her to, “Go and sin no more”. “Sin no more”, essentially meant, “This time, do it right.” Jesus did not parade her in front of her accusers. What he did was shame those who thought themselves righteous.
After my O-ring experience, I determined to do a better job. In part, I was selfishly motivated to not be embarrassed again. In part, I also did not want to put someone in the position of having to offer forgiveness again. The game of golf helps to illustrate this. Re-hitting a bad shot is called taking a mulligan. Here, mulligans serve as a euphemism for extending forgiveness. Golfers cannot just say, “I’m going to re-hit that one”. Someone in the group has to say, “Go ahead, and re-hit”. When I play golf, I selfishly look forward to hearing those words.
For the person offering the mulligan, personal interests can make the offering, both difficult, and disadvantageous, as well as disruptive to their dominant position. Allocating forgiveness provides an opportunity for revenge, by offering forgiveness conditionally or incrementally. This, however, is not how God offers forgiveness. God, from his dominant position, does not ponder our wrong; our switched O-rings. God immediately offers us a chance to do it right. He offers a mulligan.
Self-forgiveness, is often the most difficult forgiveness of all. Many people, find it impossible to accept the desired mulligan. The consequences of a wrong, is too great of an obstacle. Imagine for a moment, if I had been the sole survivor of a catastrophic end to that helicopter; that the gig sheet had been destroyed, leaving me the only one with knowledge of who had switched the O-ring. There is little comfort in knowing that others had switched O-rings before me. How would I have handled the lasting hurt. A good friend of mine says, “Bitterness is the inability to forgive others. Regret is the inability to forgive self. Bitterness and regret are both thieves – they steal life away.”
Often, efforts to rectify a problem only exasperate the situation, and stopping the offending action is the closest thing to an optimal solution. I have long said, that what you did does not count, so much as what you do with what you did. Consequences are another conversation, and they may exist. For this conversation, God’s forgiveness is a source of comfort, and a model for accepting personal forgiveness.
I first shared these thoughts years ago, in the context of asking forgiveness from my wife. In saying all of this to her, I vowed to, “This time do it right.” She looked at me and asked, “Starting now?” To which I replied, “Starting now”. Unfortunately, in life, switching O-rings was not a one and done thing. I promised “starting now”, more times than I care to remember. As life progressed, my wife got to the point where she would just wearily say, “Starting?”, and in my own self-doubt, I would say, “Starting.”
Not switching O-rings on helicopters again was easy. Whenever I opened the box, I took the O-ring packet not to be used, and threw it away before proceeding. Unless I miss my guess, I am not the only one who has difficulty trashing wrong decisions. Analogies are always incomplete, but if goodness or Godliness are many things, they are in part the ability to receive and extend forgiveness. Maybe I could say they are a right response to switched O-rings, by offering more mulligans.