Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Flight Of The Trooper

In November of 1987 I joined the U.S. Army and since I was already in the National Guard and had attended all of my training all I had to do was go back and get a new MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). Basically that means getting trained for a new job. My training took me back to Ft. Jackson, S.C., the scene of so much pain, sweat and a few curse words that we shall call Basic Training. The Christmas and New Years holidays were fast approaching and at this time every year all of the training units were to be shut down and all of the trainees sent home for two weeks. It's a strange procedure called Christmas Exodus.

We weren't allowed to take all of our belongings with us since we would be coming back so we had to decide what we couldn't live without. The problem for me was that I had many cassette tapes to choose from and not a lot of space to put them in. This clearly was a process that required a great deal of thought and careful deliberation. After all, if I left a tape behind that meant I wouldn't have access to it for two whole weeks, almost an eternity in those days. So there I was kneeling in front of my locker going through my box of cassettes trying to make the hard choices.

Some choices were easy, like Moving Pictures by Rush, that went in the yes pile without a thought. Next to that was the maybe pile followed by the no pile. The maybe pile was the largest. As I went through them I came upon Iron Maiden's Piece Of Mind and I immediately put it in the no pile. However as soon as I did this and started to reach for another cassette I hesitated. It occurred to me that it did contain my favorite Maiden song "The Trooper" and you never know, I might be in the mood for something that aggressive during the holidays since I never was much for celebrating and didn't care for Christmas music.

With that thought my mind was quickly changed and I relocated Iron Maiden to the yes pile and continued with my selections. Once finished the cassettes were placed in my carry on bag with my walkman and a book or two, the bag properly zipped up and off I went to catch a cab to the airport dressed in my Class A uniform (it was a requirement not a style choice). From there I waited for my flight to Huntington, W.V. I'm not from Huntington, it's just that it has the closest airport to my hometown of Ironton, Ohio, which itself is not a huge, bustling borough. The ride was a short one and after checking my bag I still had time to kill once I arrived at my departure gate. So on came the headphones and I started jamming to some music and read a magazine.

Right after the announcement was made for first class to board I noticed a skinny, long haired guy walking past me with a very attractive, dark haired woman. The only thought that entered my brain was "Wow, that guy's got a messed up nose just like the drummer from Iron Maiden." Upon closer inspection I saw that he was carrying the kind of case that looked like it contained drum sticks and a practice pad. This called for a re-evaluation so I gave him a good once over and my next thought was "He even looks like the drummer from Iron Maiden."

As the rest of the passengers started boarding I could tell that the ladies working at the gate were excited as they were eagerly chattering to each other in hushed tones. Feeling that it was appropriate, I asked them if that indeed this fellow was the drummer from Iron Maiden, but they wouldn't confirm or deny it. Clearly something was up though. Again I gave him the once over as I walked down the aisle to my seat and as I did so I was totally convinced. It was Nicko McBrain, the drummer from Iron Maiden, here on my flight to Huntington, W.V. of all places. I knew I couldn't let a golden opportunity like this pass me by.

After sitting in my assigned window seat I immediately started digging through my bag frantically trying to find my Piece Of Mind cassette tape. The man sitting next to me in his dress shirt, tie and slacks asked me what was going on. I tried to explain to him that the drummer for the world famous heavy metal band Iron Maiden was at this very moment sitting in first class on our plane and I intended to get his autograph. After all, this is a group that could sell out stadiums in countries like Poland which always seemed like a pretty impressive an accomplishment to me. Although my seat companion clearly had no idea about who or what I was speaking of he was nevertheless impressed by my excitement and quickly loaned me his sharpie and wished me luck.

Slowly I made my way up the aisle (it wasn't a very large plane) into first class where I could see the stewardess talking to the only occupants there, Nicko and his lady friend. The stewardess glanced at me and asked me if she could help me. Looking directly into her eyes I told her "No, but he can" and immediately turned to Nicko thrusting out my tape and the sharpie and asked for his autograph. If he was surprised at the sight of this tall, skinny guy with his hair buzzed off, dressed in a military uniform, who had readily recognized him he didn't let it faze him. Instead he happily complied and asked my name as he started writing. Now at this moment my head almost overflowed with questions that I could ask of him now that I had been gifted with this rare chance meeting. Topics like when were they touring, when would a new album be coming and so forth all burst into my consciousness.

Instead, I only managed to blurt out "You guys rock!" That's it. That's all I could muster in my moment in the sun. So sad. I'm sure that he noticed the change in my demeanor as immediately I started berating myself mentally for sounding so stupid but if he did he didn't show it. He merely thanked me, finished signing my tape and handed it back to me. Realizing that my time was rapidly fading I regained my senses and asked him why he was going to Huntington. It turned out that the lady was his fiance and she was from a town located about midway between Huntington and Charleston, WV and they were on their way to spend the holidays with her parents. Thanking him again I quickly made my way back to my seat in the nether regions of coach class and prepared for takeoff.

The rest of the flight was a blur for me and yes, I did listen to Piece Of Mind during the flight. Once we arrived in Huntington I informed my sister and her husband of the famous musician on my flight and as we walked to claim my baggage Nicko was already walking away with his. I caught his eye and he nodded to me, a move of which I made sure my sister and her husband were aware of. We grabbed my bags and on the way to their car we could see Nicko putting his bags into his rental car with a cluster of teens around him. As we walked on those teens came by us and I overheard one of them saying "I don't know who he is but I know he's famous." I wanted to smack those young punks right then and there for having the audacity to ask someone for an autograph when they didn't even know who he was. The nerve.

There's my story of how I met a famous rock star and said something totally and completely lame to him. Some may say that my change of heart about bringing the only Iron Maiden cassette tape that I owned was merely a coincidence and nothing more but I think not. It was instead some strange twist of fate not meant to be life altering, perhaps only to be an amusing tale (hopefully) for me to bore people with later in life. That's where all of you come in. As for the only other question that can be asked about this momentous occasion, do I still have the tape? You better believe it. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Written and Published by Don Leach. May not be used without permission from the author.

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