What I am gonna tell you… is a pretty unbelievable story. It’s the story of a man and his son, and there is no official proof that any of it ever happened. It’s the oral history told by folks who knew them, folks who shared their lives. I can’t prove it to you. That said, every word of it is true.
This is really the story of the Cat, but you can’t tell it without starting with the Colonel. The Colonel was an old school, tough as nails pilot. If the Air Force of 1960 could produce a perfect archetype, it would’ve been him. He flew missions in WWII, Korea, and even though he was too old, Nam. Also, it should be known he was called the Colonel… and he was a Colonel. Right up until he stole an Air Force plane and flew a mission without permission in Nam just so he could say he was the only Air Force pilot to fly missions in all three conflicts. Yes, you read that right. An old Colonel requested permission to fly a mission, the Air Force denied it, so he took the plane and did it himself. This isn’t a Hollywood movie, but it could be. The Air Force busted him back a few grades after that… but everyone still called him The Colonel.
That was the kind of guy the Colonel was. He was mean and stubborn and pure hell to deal with. He went on eventually to pilot Air Force One.
The Cat was the Colonel’s son, in every possible way. No one called him the Cat – that’s just the name I’m using here – because everyone actually used the guy’s real name. He was raised hard. He was tough as hell and spent his whole life trying to make his daddy proud. It didn’t work. At least, not so long as he lived.
The Cat was as bad as a human male can be. He was broken in the sense that those that knew him really thought him incapable of not accepting any challenge, no matter how stupid or trivial. His friends would use this brokenness to entertain themselves. One night a bunch of them were hanging out on a pier, and a girl said, “Cat, you know, I bet a Navy SEAL could jump down onto that pier (which was about an 18 foot drop), sprint to the end of the pier and back, and climb back up here in under a minute.” The Cat, just as always, would get pissed off. “Fuck the SEALS! I can do that!” But the girl knew what she was doing. “Oh, come on, you’re in the Chair Force!” And sure enough, he jumped down, fell on his ass, rolled himself up and made the sprint. And he made the climb too. Cat did it in under a minute. He then showed his friends that he had done it on a broken ankle.
Just like his dad, the Cat was a man of pure will. And pure meanness. He ended up handling lots of… problems… in the Gulf. He would text with his friends a lot, though. He could never talk about what he was doing, but he almost always sounded happy. Almost always. There was this one time that he told his friends he had to go away for a while and he didn’t know when he’d be back, and he couldn’t talk about what he was doing. Actually, it wasn’t just the one time. It happened a few times.
He got older and, as it goes, he eventually became a security guy. He ran base security for a long time, and eventually ended up being one of only a few men that carried a gun inside the Pentagon. At the peak of his career he was head of security for the Joint Chiefs.
Eventually, age and poor health caught up with the Cat. He developed lung cancer, which everyone knew came from the fact that he was in charge of disposing the chemical weapons we were told no one found.
The Cat died young, and in spite of everything he had done, the day he died I still don’t think it was ever enough for his dad, the Colonel. But that changed at the funeral.
Lots of military brass showed up in the little town where the Cat was being laid to rest. They showed up for the Colonel, and they showed up for the Cat. But a funny thing happened. Three military men in dress uniforms with medals all over them walked up to the Colonel and said, “Sir, we need you to read this. No one else can know, but we want you to know what your son did for his country.” They handed him a piece of paper. The Colonel read it and handed it back to them. One of them took the paper, pulled out a lighter, and lit it on fire. He put the ashes on top of the Cat’s casket, and the Colonel said, “I am proud of you, son.”
They say that’s the only time anyone ever saw the Colonel cry.
I have no idea what that piece of paper said. And if I did know, I couldn’t tell you. I would just like to remind you that all over America today in small towns where no one matters, where you think no one really is anybody, there are men like the Cat. There are men like the Colonel. There are men who have done things that are so incredible you wouldn’t believe it if you saw it in a movie.
So when you see those old men hanging around Hardees at 7am telling stories and loafing, remember: There’s a chance those men are all just average guys.
And there’s a chance… they aren’t.