Once upon a time, Pan American Airways sold a special ticket for something called Flight One. It was akin to a magic flying carpet ride. Good for a year, a Flight One ticket entitled its holder to circle the earth, stopping in major cities as often and for as long as desired.
Back in that long-ago time during the Vietnam War—contrary to good reasoning—Richard Jellerson flew back-to-back tours with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company at Cu Chi. After each tour he bought a Flight One ticket.
Jellerson’s first earth orbit lasted only a month, the duration of his leave time between tours. His second trip took time enough to stabilize his mind for re-entry into society—and the onset of adulthood.
Jellerson’s The Healing: Pan Am Flight 001 (Outskirts Press, 148 pp. $15.95, paper) is an account of those journeys. The book is exceptionally well written. For that, Jellerson thanks screenwriter Todd Mattox, a cousin who brainstormed with him about the book, and “then acted as muse, editor, [and] occasional re-writer.”
Jellerson writes about truths that are evident, but unrecognized, in military life. For example, combat demands obedience to the desire for self-preservation, but the need disappears once the shooting starts.
He explains these types of things with lucidity filled with innocence, as if he had heard such truths in the past but only much later began to understand them. Paradoxically, one’s heightened senses reduces concern for one’s self, he says. “Through the war I had become a different person and still didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he admits.
He had to overcome contradictory thoughts to return home and establish a workable relationship with America, a nation that had betrayed him, he believed. Traveling to sixteen countries, Jellerson encountered a variety of people with whom he discussed life—people who “pulled him back from the edge,” he says. That includes:
- A young Thai woman selling soda and telling him her dreamy vision of America
- A news correspondent eagerly seeking war
- Men and women in Australia, Italy, England, and Greece accepting him at face value
- Jellerson himself pondering atheism and the certainty of no afterlife, thereby placing the burden of living on here and now.
At times, I felt the people he met were simply Jellerson’s alter egos, and he was talking to himself, straining to evaluate horrors that the war had revealed to him. He frequently flashed back to combat experiences—particularly rescuing the wounded—to build a foundation for his rehabilitation needs.
He sums up a turning point in his life with an observation that occurred in 1969 on his “second or third day of flying a combat assault” as a nineteen-year-old copilot:
“The enemy below this day was a wonder to see. They ran at full speed through the jungle in those light brown uniforms and pith helmets carrying all their weapons. These North Vietnamese Army regulars were fully committed to get to our landing zone ahead of us. They ran through the humid, deep green, overheated jungle with only one thought: shoot down the helicopters.”
His conclusion: “Until then I had only intellectually embraced even the concept of enemy.”
In those moments, Jellerson discovered a foe and surrendered his individuality to American politicians. Flight One helped him find it again. People of the world taught him a major lesson—that “no one hated me, and I hated no one. I had friends everywhere I went. And only had enemies in one small beautiful country in Southeast Asia by political mandate.”
I rank The Healing alongside my favorite books written by the youngest of men at war: A G.I.’s Vietnam Diary: A Journey Through Myself by Dominick Yezzo and Calm Frenzy: One Man’s Vietnam War by Loring M. Bailey Jr.
The three books tell more about the Vietnam War than a roomful of generals or overflowing stacks of Pentagon documents.