MEMORIES OF GENE ENGLAND
By Thom Parkes
Earliest Memories of Gene
It was during a sacrament meeting at the Salt Lake LDS Institute of Religion that I first learned there was such a person as Gene England. I was beginning my junior year at the U of U (Fall, 1956) and was fully immersed in academia and activities at the Institute of Religion when I first saw a skinny student with short-clipped sandy hair sitting on the stand behind the podium. My first impression was of a visiting high school student. I remember wondering what the occasion might be that we were to be addressed by a high school student. But when Elder England was introduced as a married returned missionary from Samoa and a fellow university student, I was not only surprised but—shortly after he began speaking—amazed. His vocabulary and scriptural understandings were well beyond my expectations for fellow university undergraduate students. I quickly decided that this Gene England was anything but “typical.”
Gene and I occasionally shared classes during the following two years. I remember him in several of Lowell Bennion’s Institute classes, at least one Church History class taught by T. Edgar Lyon, and a Wednesday evening Doctrine and Covenants class taught by Marion D. Hanks, who had recently been called to the presidency of the Seventy. I also seem to remember him in Wendell O. Rich’s “Mormon Theology” class, and its “by popular demand” follow-on: “Advanced Mormon Theology.”
From the same period, I also remember Gene’s wife, Charlotte, playing her violin during Institute sacrament services. For this student, Charlotte’s long, straight brown hair matched her classical music selections to a fine “T.” I never suspected that her hair wasn’t naturally straight. Years later, when her photo appeared in a church magazine, The New Era, she was sporting a curly hair-do. Noting that change, the next time we visited I jokingly accused her of surrendering to the modern styles of “Babylon.” That’s when she revealed the “true” Charlotte: “My hair was always naturally curly.” Just when you think you know people well. . . . I was happy to count Gene and Charlotte as friends during our final two years at the U; sublime concepts coupled with serene music—what a fine couple Gene and Charlotte were.
Gene and I also shared Air Force ROTC classes which were held in the old Annex building on the upper campus adjacent to Fort Douglas. For those who knew him later in life and were familiar with Gene’s un-militaristic, anti-war stances, it usually comes as something of a surprise to learn that there was a military phase in his life. Not only did he complete the Air Force ROTC program at the U, but he received his 2nd Lieutenant commission in the USAF (1958) and was sent to MIT for training to become an Air Force meteorologist. I often wondered how many English/History students study sufficient math and science to qualify for graduate-level meteorology programs? The breadth of Gene’s educational underpinnings was beginning to show. Upon completion at MIT, Gene was assigned to George Air Force Base in Victorville, California.
Gene’s military activity can properly be understood only in context of the universal military conscription (commonly termed “the draft”) in effect at the time. Participation in ROTC programs was one way to obtain a deferment from the draft. As with thousands of other university students at the time, Gene and I preferred the option of serving longer periods (typically four years) of doing something meaningful as an officer—like flying or forecasting weather—rather than two years of literally crawling through the mud on one’s hands and knees as a buck-Private.
That other option was chosen by many of our contemporaries. My first cousin Richard Swapp was one of them. He volunteered for the draft soon after graduation from high school (despite the ongoing Korean War) and spent two years as an Army clerk-typist in Korea (1952–1954). He then used his GI Bill educational benefits to earn his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Utah (1958). He was then hired by IBM and moved to San Jose, California, where he also got to know Gene and Charlotte England during their time at Stanford (1962–1969).
Convergence at Victorville
I had not communicated with Gene following our 1958 graduation from the University of Utah. That impasse ended in February 1961, when I landed a malfunctioning F-100 Super Saber at George AFB. I was one of three pilots and an instructor in a flight of four F-100s out of Nellis AFB on a four-hour simulated night deployment. Practice deployments were always done under the most adverse conditions—in this case taking off at 2200 hours (10:00 pm) on a moonless night and performing night air-to-air refueling over Arizona’s Painted Desert. On take-off from runway 3L at Nellis, my plane’s after-burner failed immediately, which instantly reduced engine power by 40 percent. After a few moments of the classical “stark horror” aviators speak of so euphemistically, when I was blinded by the fifty-foot flame of my element leader’s afterburner and couldn’t tell if my plane was climbing or settling, I was finally able to nurse the airplane into a tentative climb sufficient to clear the dark mountains northeast of Nellis.
Since the F-100 afterburner was normally only required for take-off, our operations center advised me to continue the mission and to have the plane repaired at our destination (which had three squadrons of F-100s and the required specialized F-100 mechanics). What they didn’t know, however, was that most of those F-100 mechanics were on overseas deployments—one squadron was en route to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, while another was returning—and the few remaining at George had higher-priority work than fixing a “transient” F-100. As a result, it required three days for the non-specialized “Base Flight” mechanics to fix my plane’s afterburner. At one point, they had electrical circuit diagrams spread all across the plane’s wing, puzzling over which systems first had to be removed in order to gain access to the afterburner circuitry.
Following lunch on the day of our 2:00 a.m. arrival, I optimistically proceeded to Base Operations to check the status of my plane’s repairs. Finding no satisfaction there, I wandered through the weather department perusing the current meteorology charts on display. Thus engrossed, I was totally surprised to hear my name called, and turned to see Gene rushing toward me. What a surprise reunion!
My three days at Victorville renewed and solidified old friendships. Gene and Charlotte invited me for dinner each evening. On the second evening, we also attended an ice-skating party for Gene’s class of teenage MIA students held at Lake Arrowhead in the mountains south of Victorville.
I quickly learned that Gene and Charlotte were leading very active lives in Victorville, both at home and at church. Their family had grown to four children—three girls and a boy. When I asked Gene how he was able to handle the confusion and noise of four kids, he simply replied, “Oh, you get calloused to it.” Both were very active in the local LDS Ward; Gene was teaching early morning Seminary, and he and Charlotte were jointly teaching a mixed MIA group (M-Men and Gleaners?) of active teenagers on Tuesday evenings.
Within a week or two of my return to Nellis AFB, our class was notified of our first permanent base assignments. Given my recent reunion with Gene and Charlotte, I was pleased to learn of my assignment to the 309th Tactical Fighter Squadron at George AFB, Victorville, California. Six of my fellow classmates were also assigned to George—three to F-100 squadrons and another three to the F-104 Starfighter squadrons.
Kaaren and I arrived in Victorville in late April, and we moved directly into base housing within a block or two of Gene and Charlotte’s residence. For the balance of the year, until Gene had completed his military obligation, we were very close.
Life with Gene and Charlotte
Several experiences stand out in my memory of Gene in Victorville. Without doubt, the most memorable was a sermon he delivered for an LDS F-104 pilot killed in a mid-air collision. The other pilot was able to eject safely from his disintegrating Starfighter.
Gene didn’t know the deceased pilot well, only that he was an inactive Latter-day Saint from Salt Lake City. He immediately went to comfort the pilot’s wife and children. His genuine concern for their welfare led to his being asked to deliver the sermon at the Air Force memorial services. In preparation, he spent many hours with the pilot’s widow, trying to develop a feeling for the deceased pilot’s deepest convictions. For three days Gene fasted and prayed while comforting the family and preparing his remarks.
On the day of the memorial services, Gene delivered a personalized and wonderfully sensitive affirmation of the afterlife into which he carefully wove threads of the LDS “plan of salvation.” At the conclusion of the services, when the deceased pilot’s wife and children emerged from the chapel, their smiles were radiant and hopeful—until the Air Force missing-man formation roared overhead.
I have experienced many missing-man formations in my aviation career. I’ve participated in some, and I’ve directed a large-scale international flyby for a deceased Air Force general (in Seoul, Korea). None of those experiences compare to this first experience of a missing-man formation. This was partly because of Gene’s sermon, but mostly because of the unique airplane.
F-104s are distinctive airplanes. Their short-stubby wings, small size, and supersonic performance earned them the apt description of “a missile with a man in it.” It was the first Mach 2 capable US jet fighter (able to reach speeds of over 1,400 mph) and at that time was the only U.S. plane capable (at light weights) of accelerating while climbing straight up. Beyond their amazing performance, F-104s are also remembered for their unique sound. When F-104s flew overhead, which they did virtually everyday at George AFB, their J-79 jet engines emitted a distinctively eerie, almost spiritual moaning sound, somewhat reminiscent of a Gregorian chant. One did not have to look up to determine the type of airplane overhead. The effect was magnified when a formation of four entered the overhead tactical traffic pattern. First you would hear the high-pitch approaching sounds of four J-79 engines in unison, followed by a two-decibel decrease in tone as the planes passed abeam your position. Now each plane would break away from the formation in sequence, turning 180 degrees to individual downwind legs for landing, their varying individual throttle settings creating a symphony of melodic engine sounds grown familiar and comforting to airmen and families alike—signaling a successful ending to a day’s work.
It is Air Force tradition, when possible, to honor a deceased pilot by flying a “missing-man formation” overhead a public gathering. This typically consists of a four-ship formation arranged in the classical “fingertip” pattern (visualize the pattern made by your four fingertips). When directly overhead the gathering, the Number 3 aircraft (that’s the finger adjacent to your little finger) traditionally initiates a climbing turn, departing the formation and heading west, out of sight. To this tradition, the F-104s added a unique twist. Because of the F-104s amazing climbing ability, the Number 3 F-104 pilot ignited his afterburner and pulled up gracefully into an absolutely vertical climb, which was maintained until his plane disappeared into the blue sky, out of sight. The symbolism was simply too much. Despite Gene’s optimistic sermon, and affirmation of an afterlife, my tears flowed spontaneously. The effect was universal—for most everyone—especially for the family.
Gene’s sermon was the talk of the base for days. The deceased pilot’s family asked Gene if he could possibly repeat his sermon at funeral services planned the following week in Salt Lake City. As plans developed, the commander not only allowed Gene to travel to Salt Lake City for the funeral but provided the transportation—in a two-seat model of the F-104.
The plan was for a flight of four F-104s to duplicate their missing-man formation over the Salt Lake City Cemetery in the Avenues neighborhood directly east of the Utah Capitol Building. An F-104 became Gene’s aerial chariot. He was quickly given the ejection seat and pressure chamber training required for such a flight. The four planes flew to Hill AFB where Gene was met by an Air Force staff car and rushed to the Salt Lake City chapel just in time for the funeral services. Gene delivered his sermon at the chapel, and while the funeral procession drove to the cemetery, Gene was immediately whisked back to the Hill Field for the flight home. In the meantime, the F-104s had refueled, took off, and flew their missing-man salute over the 250-acre Salt Lake City Cemetery—passing directly over the dome of the Utah State Capital Building in the process—and quickly recovered to Hill Field to top off their fuel tanks and get out of town before the noise complaints started coming in (which they did!).
A flight in an F-104 would have been a singular entry in any pilot’s logbook. Gene wasn’t a pilot, but he had genuinely touched the lives of everyone involved in this tragedy, from the family of the deceased pilot to the F-104 pilots with whom he flew. The F-104 flight was an appropriate reward from which Gene also gained a unique perspective not often experienced by meteorologists. He was away from George AFB a mere five hours, a short period in which he touched the hearts of many in a very special way. I told him that I was envious of his opportunity to ride in an F-104, which I never did.
Gene as Meteorologist
One morning at George AFB, we pilots reported early to the flight line for scheduled training flights. It was a beautifully clear early morning in the high desert, without so much as a breeze to disturb the still air. Once inside our squadron Operations Building, however, we saw a large sign indicating that all flights were cancelled due to a forecast for high winds. I soon learned that Gene had issued the forecast the previous evening for high winds to occur beginning at a certain time—like 0735. That forecast quickly came into question when all of the squadrons began calling the Director of Operations (DO), who was soon on the phone with Gene’s supervisor, who was now on duty. Gene couldn’t be contacted to change his forecast because he was teaching early morning seminary in Victorville, and his supervisor wasn’t willing to change the forecast until he had time to review all of the factors involved. For a time it seemed that we had a stalemate.
Pressure from the DO finally got results, however. Gene’s supervisor issued an amended forecast indicating a reduced wind velocity which would permit our training flights to launch. Accordingly, dozens of pilots began pre-flighting their aircraft, starting their engines, and taxiing for takeoff. Before the first flights were airborne, however, the winds starting blowing, and blowing hard, directly across our only usable runway—all of this beginning within a few minutes of the time Gene had originally forecast. All flying was cancelled.
I later asked Gene about how he had been able to forecast the winds so accurately. He minimized his own role, indicating that forecasting weather in the dry Victorville climate was really quite easy. He pointed out that when you start adding moisture to the forecasting equation, things get complicated very fast. Without that moisture, it was a simple matter of checking pressure gradients and making allowances for solar heating. Piece of cake!
Book of Mormon Study Group
Shortly after settling into our cinder block military housing just inside the main gate at 17 Cory Blvd, we were informed that the house was scheduled for painting. When the time arrived, we moved into the transient quarters for three days while the painting crew did their thing with spray guns and speckled paint. The good news: we were able to select our choice of colors. When the painters were done, they left the windows open so the interior would air out overnight. They, and we, should have checked Gene’s weather forecast. A windstorm roared across George AFB that evening, leaving mini-sand dunes across the kitchen’s tile floor and quarter-inch dust drifts in freshly painted kitchen drawers and cabinet shelves. This was our welcome to California’s high desert.
A few weeks later, while visiting with Gene following a sacrament meeting at the Victorville Ward, the idea of initiating a Book of Mormon study group was discussed. Gene first suggested the idea. I was immediately interested. Besides being a good way of enriching our understanding of the Book of Mormon, it would also directly involve our spouses, helping us all grow closer together spiritually and socially. In turn, we invited Jerry and Rowane Cannon and a few others to join our little group. In order to deflect any critics, we decided that it would be a good idea to also invite our Victorville bishopric. Bishop Don Bigler did show up for one session but indicated that he wasn’t particularly worried about our group.
Rather than starting at the beginning of the Book of Mormon, we decided to begin with King Benjamin’s great discourse at the beginning of Mosiah. We seemed to agree that many of us had frequently begun reading at the beginning and soon became bogged down in 2nd Nephi’s Isaiah chapters. It would be far better, we reasoned, to begin with a fresh and engaging story line. Coincidently, as we were to learn many years later, this was also where Joseph Smith renewed his translation efforts following the loss by Martin Harris of the original 116 manuscript pages. It is also at the beginning of the Large Plates of Nephi.
I credit Gene’s real-world missionary experiences, in which the Book of Mormon figured prominently, coupled with his training in literary composition for a unique and enriching Book of Mormon experience. Gene had seen the Atonement passages of the Book of Mormon radically alter lives for the better when struggling investigators came to feel the power of the Savior’s love and acceptance. Sharing his stories and unique insights with each of us, Gene added a new vibrancy to what had previously seemed stale and confusing passages. Our Sunday evening Book of Mormon discussions became a spiritually rewarding experience beyond any Sunday School or seminary classes I’d ever attended. In the process, he also refreshed in me the loving insights and spirit of our mutual Institute teacher, Lowell Bennion.
Discussing the Gospel with Gene
On one occasion in late 1961, Gene, Charlotte, and I were scheduled to attend a stake-level training session in Lancaster, California, about an hour’s drive west of Victorville. I had recently been called to serve as a stake missionary, and prior to being set apart was further called to serve as stake mission secretary. I was scheduled to be “set-apart” to those callings in the Lancaster meeting.
Apparently, the stake mission president wanted to perform the settings apart, but at the last minute was unable to attend. I was asked to begin my service as secretary pending being set apart at a later meeting to be held in Victorville. These various delays combined in interesting ways to prevent me from serving in either capacity. A few days prior to the designated subsequent meeting in Victorville, I received notice of Air Force PCS orders to a three-year overseas assignment—at Itazuke Air Base in Japan.
Aside from all this largely irrelevant background information, our drive to Lancaster was most memorable for the gospel discussions en route. At some point during the return, we started discussing the gospel law of sacrifice. I clearly remember arguing the point that giving up one value in order to gain a greater value should not be considered to be a sacrifice, because you were receiving a greater value in place of something of lesser value. Gene argued for the more conventional interpretation of sacrifice. Neither of us was willing to adopt the opposing view.
As we arrived home, Charlotte was cheering me on, saying that I shouldn’t give in to Gene “because he always wins these discussions.” Gene’s final comment was to the effect that if I insisted on my definition, I would have to find another word for it, because that wasn’t the dictionary definition of sacrifice. I remember saying that I wasn’t arguing for or against Webster’s definition, only the concept as it should be viewed from a rational perspective.
Gospel discussions with Gene were seldom dull.
Opposition in All Things
In 1961, the United States (including NATO) and Soviet blocs were locked in the early escalating steps of the forty-year Cold War. Few Air Force personnel could foresee all of the storm clouds gathering on the international horizon. While East Germany and the Soviets were ratcheting up the pressure to block ground and air access to Berlin, and the Western governments were carefully countering their moves, other issues were festering on the opposite side of the globe that would soon eclipse the tensions in Europe. It was a time fraught with tension and disagreement between governments and friends alike.
In an early gambit in this international game of chess, my F-100 squadron was alerted during the first week of October, 1961, for overseas deployment to West Germany. We went to counter the East German threats against Berlin, and we were successful in that limited objective. We were also successful the following year in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when many of my squadron mates were literally staring down the Soviet Union in a war of nerves and nuclear threats. In the meantime, political and military attention was beginning to focus on issues in Southeast Asia, where international agreements (through SEATO) had committed the United States to come to the aid of the government of South Viet Nam against a threatening “communist” insurgency. The issues were not as clearly delineated in Southeast Asia as in Europe, but the U.S. was certain of the threat, if not the solution. Early aid was limited to sending military and technical advisors.
During our senior year (1957–1958) AFROTC military leadership training classes at the University of Utah, I had chaired a team report on the South East Asia Treaty Organization, which was patterned after NATO but, because of the unstable status of governments and economies in the region, was largely considered to be a “paper tiger.” The open question was whether that tiger had real teeth.
Gene and I usually took opposite sides in occasional discussions of these developing international tensions. During 1961–62, I tended to see the good intentions of the U.S. government in honoring our international agreements, while Gene early on—long before it was fashionable to do so—took a stand against U.S. involvement. We both cited Christian principles to support our differing positions. I typically cited the parable of the Prodigal Son, or other similar teachings, while Gene consistently argued against the use of force in solving international tensions. We had long discussions of the Book of Mormon perspectives on war, with special emphasis on the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, otherwise known as the Ammonites. We disagreed even on the object lesson of that experience.
My views on this issue took a dramatic turn over the following five years, but it required personal involvement in the form of a half-dozen combat support TDYs from Japan to Viet Nam and Thailand, plus considerable soul-searching, to see the issues as clearly as Gene had seen them long before the killing and destruction really wound up to such tragic levels. But by that time, I was accustomed to Gene winning most of our arguments.
Today, I treasure Gene’s personal autograph in my copy of his 1995 volume of personal essays, Making Peace:
With fondest memories and best wishes for my favorite military peacemaker. Eugene England