Thunderbird John

Updated: Nov 11

This weekend is one of my favorite weekends of the fall where I live. Today, tomorrow, and Sunday, I will see aircraft of all sorts, hear the roar of the engines, and feel their energy as the ALLIANCETEXAS AVIATION EXPO is underway. It reminds me of living on Air Force bases during that time and gives me comfort listening to the sound of Freedom overhead.


Like all air shows in the U.S., they are capped with demonstration teams. On odd years, we are graced with the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. They are a spectacular sight in their blue F-18s ripping through the sky, and I must admit, they are pretty badass. On even years like this year, we are blessed to have my favorite team in the afternoon skies: The USAF Thunderbirds. In their sleek white F-16s with red and blue trim, they literally fly over my roof at low elevations, sometimes shaking the house. It's a most spectacular rush feeling that reverberation.


It also reminds me that I know a former Thunderbird pilot.

 

It was mid-July 1993 when I met a young Airman named John Baum. He was still 17 years old, having just graduated from high school, and he was from Long Island, a long way from Lackland AFB in San Antonio, TX. Like all of us, he was scared those first few days, but over time, he stepped up and was a leader in our training flight. But I got to really know John when he and I were the only two members of our Basic flight going into the same career field.


One August afternoon, near the end of Basic, John and I had to get an eye test. During the test, our eyes were dilated to check for internal damage and to set a baseline since part of what we would be doing involved lasers. As we returned to our barracks after the test (barely able to see even with thick sunglasses on as we navigated back to our barracks without escort), we got to know one another. You could say that is when we became friends. "Two Teenage Mutant Ninja Airmen," as we were called by one of the most fearsome T.I.s in "Mother Russia."

 

After graduation from Basic, John and I ended up at Lowry AFB, CO. While there are many stories I could share, two things stand out.


The first one was one Saturday afternoon; we rode the bus to Cherry Creek Mall. It was after Thanksgiving, so it was the full-on Christmas season in Denver. While at the mall, a symphony was playing Christmas music. We stopped and listened for a while. During the concert, John noticed a pretty lady playing. He pointed her out, and I agreed that she was indeed a beautiful lady.


After the concert, we went downstairs and stood near the symphony. I encouraged John to say hello to the musician, but he was still shy at that time. So what does a good friend do? I went over, introduced myself to the musician, pointed to John, and told her, "my friend likes you and would like to meet you." She laughed and came over with me to John. I introduced them and stepped away to let them speak. After 20ish minutes, John came over with a smile that would rival the Cheshire cat. A date was scheduled, but more importantly, a new man emerged. A confidence level in John appeared that I hadn't seen before but would often see afterward.


Oh yes, the second: I still have the lined flannel shirt of his that I borrowed. It's in my closet, hanging. I cannot help but remember my friend when I come across it.

 

The last time I saw John was a couple of years after we graduated from Technical School. John had spent a year at Naval Air Station Keflavik, then transferred to Moody, AFB, GA. I had gone to Osan AB, South Korea, then to Mountain Home AFB, ID. Yet here we were, at the Khobar Towers in January 1996, outside Prince Sultan AB, Saudi Arabia.


During our catch-up conversations, I shared with John that I had been awarded Senior Airman Below-The Zone. John shared with me that he, too, had been nominated but didn't get selected. I was honestly shocked, so we analyzed why. The best reason for this we could think of was when I was in Osan, I was part of an A-10 gun camera retrofit and got to work on a few systems our AFSC supported, whereas John only supported one system at a relatively sleepy base.


Then John said something that I have never forgotten to this day. Satisfied with our conclusions, he said, "well, Shawn, it looks like you have a better career."


I laughed and patted him on the back. "John," I said, "our careers aren't over yet. Let's see how they play out at the end."

 

A few weeks later, I rotated back to Mountain Home and have not seen John since. In 1997, I decided to leave the USAF. It was the most difficult decision of my life. In fact, I waited literally until the last minute before deciding to separate. If it weren't for my family, I would say it was the worst decision I have made in life. I loved being in the USAF, and to this day, I miss it terribly. I'm in the USAF with my wife and sons in my perfect, alternative universe.


On the other hand, John took a different path after the last time we saw one another in Saudi.


John "Slick" Baum finished a degree, became a commissioned officer, became an F-16 pilot, flew over 50 combat missions in different theaters, and became a Thunderbird pilot! He retired as a Lt. Colonel and is now a successful businessman, among other things. Please allow me to highlight one thing: a Thunderbird pilot. He literally flew over my house multiple times, the closest we have been to one another since February 1996.


John, my friend, you won the USAF career!

c/o: https://media.defense.gov/2010/May/27/2000357762/-1/-1/0/100523-F-6318N-972.JPG

A few years ago, I managed to find an email address for John and reached out. To my delight, he replied, and we had a wonderful but brief exchange. I am aware he is a busy man doing great things in life. However, I haven't spoken to him since, and I realize how much I miss my old friend. He started as a young kid from New York and has since grown into a successful man who is a shining example to aspire to be like.

 

In a few short hours, when the kids at the elementary school down the street from me are outside on the playground, those Thunderbirds will start roaring overhead. I'm here at home, working from my home office, and there is no doubt that, at times, I'll have my clients asking what that loud noise is. "The beautiful sound of Freedom" is what I'll tell them as those wonderful birds fly over my house repeatedly.


Then I'll smile as I remember John. I do not view many people on this planet as a hero. I don't get celebrity awe, I don't care about professional athletes, and Influencers make my eyes roll. To me, those people are just people who excel in an entertainment profession or have somehow gotten popular for a bit they do through social media.


I can honestly say that retired Lt. Colonel John "Slick" Baum is my hero.


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