When I went back to school in January to finish up the electronics program for my co-op requirement, I had to go on swing shift at work and one of the first guys to take me under his wing was Willie Whitehead. Willie had been at the base for many years and was a master electrician. He knew everything about everything and could just tell you what was wrong with something without looking at it. I saw him many times just walk up to that plane, turn a few things with his wrench and walk away, saying, "there you go". In addition to the experience and wisdom he brought to our crew, he also made a mean pot of coffee. He kept our coffee going round-the-clock in the break room and when you work second shift, you need your coffee.
Willie had this big toothy grin that just lit up the room. He had contagious laughter and a crazy sense of humor. He loved bananas. He also smoked like a chimney in winter.
Part of my training that I had to complete was ops checks in Cell 6, where Willie was assigned. Every single time Willie saw me in the cockpit, he would yell up at me, "Get down from there!" and just laugh and laugh. He said I was going to get hurt and had no business up there. It became our little private joke and I got to the point where I would just yell, "NO!" down at him before he had a chance to yell up at me. That always made him laugh. Willie fussed at me for cleaning the break room, too. He said the guys wouldn't appreciate it or keep it clean and that I was wasting my time. I'd tell him, "Yeah, but Willie, it's filthy and I can't stand it." He'd just shake his head at me.
Willie got sick this spring. He didn't know what it was but he suspected his heart. He went to the doctor who put him in the hospital for tests. After countless tests and many uncertain days, it was discovered that Willie had stage four lung cancer.
He never returned to work. He did, however, attend our Wingman Day fish fry Labor Day Friday and I am so thankful that I got to see him and talk to him and hug him and tell him how much we missed him at work. He had lost so much weight and he was weak as a kitten but that smile was exactly the same. He hugged me back and told me he was glad to see me.
Willie passed away last week. Just precious few months after he was sitting at his table in the break room eating his banana without a care in the world. I'm sad. I miss him. I miss his grin, I miss his laughter, I miss his fussing at me, I miss his white hair.
Willie, I know you're in heaven now but I wish I could tell you to "get down from there!" and come back to us. But you're in a place where there is no cancer, no pain. Only peace, love and laughter. And I know our F-15's are even more beautiful from up there.