Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Flat-Footed Fly Boy

News that Pentagon brass canceled this Saturday’s military academy football games because of the federal government shutdown brought back a rush of memories.


Not about government shutdowns, but about warm, breezy Saturday afternoons with my dad watching the Air Force Academy play football at new Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs.

My father deeply wanted me to go to the Air Force Academy. Not only was it a “free” education, but it could be my stepping stone to becoming an engineer. Dad thought engineers were by and large klutzes, but his work at Martin-Marietta involving quality control of Titan missiles taught him that engineers ruled the world. An engineer who could fly was unstoppable.

I was a little less enthusiastic. Okay, a lot less enthusiastic.

Like my dad, I was good at math. He taught me how to add columns of numbers in my head and I served as an apprentice on his side job of helping people complete their income tax returns.

Unlike him, I wasn’t good at fixing things. Mechanical operations were as foreign to me as I suspect iambic pentameter was to him. He could look at a device and figure out what was wrong. I looked at the same device and wondered where I could buy a new one.

He saw engineers at the top of the corporate heap. I saw engineers as guys with plastic mechanical pencil holders.

But those Saturday afternoon football games drew our thoughts closer together. At the time, the Air Force Academy’s quarterback was Terry Isaacson. He was quick, mobile and small. In addition to starring at football, Isaacson was a three-time All American wrestler. I identified with him. I aspired to be like him.

While I studied and took the necessary tests, Dad laid the political groundwork. Then, as now, you needed a congressional nomination to attend any of the military academies. My father zeroed in on Colorado’s senior senator, Gordon L. Allott.

Like my dad, Allott was a World War II veteran who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force. Allott was affiliated with the same church we attended in Englewood, Colorado. It was a marriage made in Sunday School.

With a nomination locked up, all I had to do was pass a military physical administered at Lowry Air Force Base. It didn’t seem like much of a hurdle. I ran cross country, wrestled and played baseball. Other than normal childhood diseases and a couple of broken bones, I was healthy.

Flat footBut I failed the physical because of “obtrusive pes planus,” which we commonly call really flat feet. I was stunned. My dad was furious. He had feet as flat as mine and somehow managed to soldier from North Africa through Italy in pursuit of Germans during the war. He didn’t believe flat feet could stop someone from being a fly boy.

It did.

By then Isaacson had graduated from the Air Force Academy and we stopped going to Falcon football games. We could still see Pikes Peak from our front room window, but my dad stopped imagining he could see the Academy’s signature Chapel spires. His dream for my college education had become a jet vapor trail.

I went to college in Seattle, fell in love with the ocean mist and started a career in journalism. But I graduated in 1969 when the Vietnam War was still raging and college graduates were draft bait.

Unbeknownst to me, my dad, the WWII veteran who was still incensed I was unfit for the Air Force Academy, stormed into my local Colorado draft board. I’m not sure what he told draft board members. Probably something about the pair of series of operations I underwent as a college freshmen. And almost assuredly a lot about my Air Force physical.

The next thing I knew I received a notice from my draft board indicating I had been classified 4-F, unfit to kill and maim. Since volunteering for a government-paid vacation in Southeast Asia didn’t seem like a great career move, I accepted my deformity and moved on.

The rest is history. For the remainder of his life, my dad never talked to me about the Vietnam War, the draft or the Air Force Academy. Thanks to him, I was still alive to talk about other things.


One comment on “Flat-Footed Fly Boy

  1. Jonnetta Lyon (Jonnie)
    March 8, 2018

    I identify. My Dad’s flat feet put him into 4 F, at time of Battle of the Bulge. He lived, I’m alive now at 83 and so 4F ain’t all bad. I know Terry’s grandson. Great kid,!

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