I was going against the grain when I enlisted in the Army. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and there were so many people trying to get out of military service, but I joined up because I felt it was the right thing to do.
Being deployed to Vietnam was a very real possibility, and I even received orders to be sent there. But because my brother was already over there, the Army didn’t want us in the same place. So I was sent to Germany where the Cold War was on. We were really busy in my unit.
It was kind of ironic that I wound up back in Germany because I was born there. My father was a dissident who the Nazis imprisoned for more than 10 years before being liberated by American troops in 1945. One of the American nurses who helped to take care of him was my mother.
We moved to Orange County in 1951, and I grew up Costa Mesa where I picked up my father’s love of aviation. I already knew how to fly when I joined the Army as an 18-year old. I was trained as an aircraft mechanic. It was the best training I ever received.
The helicopters were a lot of fun to work on. One of my first birds was a Korean War era Bell helicopter like the ones on the TV show M.A.S.H. We worked on transport helicopters like the Sikorsky H-34 but my favorite was the Cobra, the Army’s main attack helicopter introduced in 1967.
One of the rules we had was that mechanics who serviced the engines would ride in the aircraft on its first flight out of the shop. Knowing you would be onboard provided a little extra incentive to get it right.
A lot of the pilots that we worked with had flown combat missions in Vietnam, and you could tell the experience had been tough. Many of them were burned out, but that meant that as a flight mechanic, you could do some of the flying, and that was a lot of fun.
p style=”text-align: left;”>Working in Germany at that time was really interesting, and since I spoke German fluently, I would also work as an interpreter. It was real Cold War stuff. For a young kid, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to travel all over Europe.
There were some risks. Riding in a big Sikorski in a thunderstorm was a memorable experience. Lots of heavy, heavy rain and ice that wound up denting the nose and peeling the paint right off of it. The pilot wanted to make for a break in the clouds which would have been the wrong thing to do since the turbulence in that part of the storm could have really torn our bird up. Luckily, he listened and we flew around it.
p style=”text-align: left;”>What I loved about the military was the organization. You knew your job, your limitations, the training was phenomenal and the chain of command worked really well. I learned skills that were in demand back home in Orange County. The aerospace business was booming. I went to work for a firm in Costa Mesa called Narmco when I got out of the Army. We made resins and adhesives for the aerospace industry. I worked there for about 27-years and then went to work for Boeing in Huntington Beach. We manufactured wings for the new Dreamliner.
The country had changed a lot by the time I left the service. People wouldn’t even look at me when I was wearing my uniform. It was a bad time for everyone but I think we learned a lot from it. Now, veterans are treated much better.
After a career in aviation, I went to work for the Sheriff’s Department in 2000. I wound up in uniform again as a Correctional Services Technician. Becoming a part of OCEA was the high point of my experience with the County. Being a Steward and standing with your coworkers in a tough environment like the jails is rewarding. I retired in September and I am moving out to Arizona with my wife. I have some things going on out there including volunteering with the Civil Air Patrol. If you have wings, you need to fly.
Rene Scharfe served in the United States Army from 1967 to 1970. He retired from the Sheriffs Department as a Correctional Services Technician.
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