Dedication for this essay goes to SOFREP brother Alex Laserblast
Samuel Booth Foster was a kayaking phenomenon. As for the biggest, strongest brothers in the Combat Diver Academy, none of them could keep pace with Sam in a kayak. Even while power sailing, a technique where a kayak would paddle hard and erect a sail to profit from the wind, Sam would fly past them on paddle alone, dribbling mocking insults as he passed, customary for Sam.
Kayaks were a large part of the Waterborne Operations Course (WOC) that the dive school ran a few times a year in the day. It was six murderous weeks on the water and the men who attended began to refer to it as Ranger School on the Water. The course went on for barely a year until it was dropped for lack of support from the military Special Operations community.
Though the course dwindled and died, Sam and the Johannes Klepper Kayak remained and prevailed. Sam continued to torpedo himself and his kayak through the ocean waters surrounding Key West Florida. Sam and I even paddled out to the Five Mile Reef in our kayaks to do a scuba dive hunt for lobster. I learned to hunt lobster from Sam; the man was a fish — totally at home in his element at sea.
Sam went so far as to purchase his own sports kayak. It was a lean and sleek sea-going craft. Sam looked like he was paddling from a giant knife blade as he slipped by us, silent and deadly, at speeds that even the mind was vexed to hold. I tried many times one day to just sit on Sam’s sports Kayak as he stood chuckling with arms crossed. At length my pride bade me halt, never to poise upon the keenly-honed edge of the craft.
“Jesus Paste, Sam, trying to sit on this diabolic shim is like trying to stack greased ball bearings while sitting in the back of a Pakistani Taxi!” Sam chortled his derisive demeaning laugh as he vaulted himself aboard and ghosted off the way of the Calda Channel. “Well, the rich just keep getting richer,” I thought of the dot that was Sam on the horizon.
Then Sam left for Delta; with him went the inspiration for the kayak, and kayak operations as they pertained to Special Operations.
I left Key West as well, months behind Sam. I was promptly assigned to Sam’s Squadron and his five-man assault team. There was a push in Delta to stand up a robust water operations capability, and Sam quite appropriately was at the head of that innovative push.
Days later Sam’s team:
“Geo, come on; let’s go to the Metal Fabrication Shop.” Shedding myself of all my guns that I thought I was going to employ on the assault range I followed Sam. That was just the “Way of Sam,” to just — without preparation or explanation — frag your day and keep you off balance and guessing. Most might miss their mark in assessing that behavior was controlling, but I was all too familiar with it as the Way of Sam: no coddling offered; none expected.
At the Metal Shop, Sam paused standing with hands on hips in front of what surely must have been a sort of aluminum cage torture device that lay on the concrete in a corner.
“What do you think, Geo?” Sam asked in his typical obscure fashion, devoid of any explanatory details.
“Of the gibbet?”
“I’m calling it the Iron Maiden.”
“Yeah but technically it resembles a gibbet, Sam,”
“I know, brainiac, but most people don’t know what a Gibbet is, but they do know what an Iron Maiden is. Plus there is the metal/rock band aspect of it. You have to consider your audience, Geo; I don’t count on running into many people with brains jam-packed with disparate facts like you.”
“Iron Maiden? I’m intrigued, Sam!”
“It’s my kayak delivery cage, used to deliver kayaks on tactical waterborne infiltrations specifically by MH-6 Little Birds.”
“So, then it really is a torture device.”
“Help me load it and transport to the back of the Squadron; I have a Little Bird coming this afternoon to start flight truth trials on this thing. We’re going to let them fly it around slick, then fly it with us on the pods, then we’ll practice delivery in Mott Lake.”
Never a dull moment, when Sam Foster was around; “Good deal Sam, bad deal scram,” was the catchphrase I coined as a fundamental defining statement for the man. I also had another saying about Sam: “The only thing worse than having Sam around, was not having Sam around”. Sam hated the first one but accepted the second one begrudgingly. What choice honestly did he have?
From the Metal Shed, we hit a workout, chow, then readied some modest sea-faring kit for the afternoon flights. Knowing that it was near impossible to port enough gear for one of Sam’s boondoggles, I spied just what he prepared for the afternoon and loaded out the same; monkey see …
As planned, the flight trials began with the pilots of our test platform flew away with the Iron Maiden strapped to the starboard side of their Little Bird. We shucked and jived on the parade field for the 40 or so minutes that they were gone on a test flight.
With a touchdown and signal from the pilot, we clambered aboard the Little Bird and exchanged ready nods to the pilot team that we were ready for phase II flight test, whatever those entails, and for the matter whatever phase I entailed. I was aboard the Sam Foster Magical Mystery flight. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. I had been on this same flight before several times. Nothing to fret so lay back and enjoy the ride.
At altitude, Sam leaned my way and:
“Got the camera?”
Ah, I would pass this portion of your test, Sam Booth Foster, you Yankee bushwhacking bastard! He had assigned me the duty of team photographer my first day with this team. I gave a sharp nod and pulled it from my kit. I began to snap photos of the lead Bird with its kayak maiden parting the parcel to our front part and parcel… air parcel that is.
Sam struck a pose of two peace signs with his hands, mouth agape in a giant smile of a ham who intended to have his photo taken. I accommodated with grace. If ever there were a Kodak moment it was now and for that photograph of Sam with his shit-eating smile bracketed on either side by a peace sign.
We loaded the starboard pod, we two, the same side as the Kayak. Well, if that were not one helluva lop-sided load, I must say:
“Geo, go to the port pod during the flight to help balance out some of this wicked-heavy load. You can transfer over during infil!”
“Roger, Sam. Why don’t we both load the port pod during flight, and then we can both transfer over for infil!?”
Sam nodded immediately and the pilot, who was listening to our yells, was nodding with alacrity, spicing his agreement with thumbs up. A tug on the controls told him the load was going to be an extreme challenge for flight unless distributed.
With Sam and I seated on the port pod, the pilot lifted the bird several feet off the ground and maintained a hover. He slowly brought the bird around in a clockwise, then a counterclockwise circle. He moved forward, backward, to the left, then to the right. With a nod of approval from the pilots, we rose briskly into forward flight.
It was a rather typical ride, probably about 70 KIAS* and 100 feet or so above the tops of the pine forest sea. There were several banking turns conducted to test the effects of gravity greater than 1G on the flight characteristics of the helicopter under the load of the Klepper, as well as the integrity of the bindings securing the kayak to the airframe.
“Great flight test: if the Iron Maiden stays on the help, it passes the test. If she comes loose and plummets, she’s a fail!” shrieked Sam with a patented grin of disrespect.
I returned: “Yeah, well they ought to hang the monster who invented this contraption!” with a grin I pilfered from Sam himself. Toward the end of the first flight test, the helo gained some 10,000 feet of altitude, an event that neither of us recalled from the pilot’s brief:
Sam: “I guess this is to test the effects of a rarified oxygen-lean atmosphere on the kayak!” he winked. I just shrugged succumbed to the wind stretching my face back until I looked like the Joker from Gotham city.
And then it happened.
Rounding its apex, the helo transitioned into a head down attitude and began to careen toward the Earth. Our gravity force went to zero and then negative as we both clung to the pod. Oh, how I hated the sense of falling. Oh, how I wished it were over. Oh, how I almost pissed myself.
As the pine forest approached so did the chopper transition to level flight once again and all was good with God and the forces of nature: birds chirped, bees buzzed, cats purred, and rabbits — well, rabbits don’t make any noise so screw them.
We unhooked and backed away from the bird at 45 degrees to the pilots’ Field of View (FOV) and headed back to our squadron bay. I detected first the pungent waft of undigested breakfast, then took note of a spill of sorts on Sam’s shirt — why, why [sic] — he had puked on himself just a bit, yes, he did.
It was at that moment that I mentally freeze-framed pair of before and after pictures of Sam, in the before photo he carried a small pack of gear. In the after photo, well, in the after photo this little piggy had none.
“Where’s your gear, Sam?”
Sam glanced my way, a glance that was pallid as a bust of Phallus, and markedly green around the gills: “During that dive at the end of the flight I thought we were going to auger in, so I jettisoned all my gear. It’s not imperative that every swinging Richard in the squadron know about this, George.” he finished with a long face that importuned and wanted to puke again.
“Not imperative, Sam … not imperative at all,” I agreed, and we both headed the chow hall — me to fill and Sam to refill.
By God and with honor,
KIAS: Knots Indicated Air Speed is corrected for instrument and position error. One knot equals about 1.15078 Miles Per Hour equivalent.
Feature image: Littlebird help with aluminum Klepper Kayak cage “Iron Maiden” rigged for flight operations.
All images courtesy of the author George E. Hand IV