Getting short" is a familiar old military term: You're coming to the end of your deployment or enlistment, and you don't have much time left before your life will be drastically altered. Just this week, Marlene and I had reason to ask whether actually getting short (physically) means that our time also is short. At the same time, some changes in a supposedly unchangeable cockpit were explained.
This all started innocently enough: Marlene (aka The Arizona Redhead) had gone for a physical and called me up in a near panic. "Budd, they say I'm only 5'4". That can't be! I'm 5'6" and always have been. They have to be wrong!"
Being the good husband who has always known her to be 5'6" (she didn't appear to have changed), as soon as she got home, I broke out a framing square, backed her up to the door jam, whipped out a tape measure, and quantified the pencil mark.
"Honey," I said, in as soothing a manner as possible, "This says you're just under 5'4½"."
She was incredulous, crestfallen and just a little PO'd. Her attitude was, "How dare my body betray me by shrinking?"
I was doing my best imitation of a warm and caring human being as I tried to calm her down. As a way of diverting her, I had her measure me. Same square, same door jam. I ran the tape measure and, when I found the hash mark at 68½", I said, "Holy, crow!" Only it was something much less PC.
I don't remember the last time anyone measured my height, but every FAA document I have says I'm 5'101⁄2" tall. Give me a break! Five-foot-eight can't be right. If the FAA says I'm 5'10", then I'm 5'10". The government is NEVER wrong. Time for a replay!
Second time, I stood my tallest. Still 5'8½" inches on the tape. Damn! I've shrunk a solid two inches. No wonder Marlene didn't seem any shorter to me. We're shrinking in unison. This kind of togetherness I could do without.
I'll admit to having some serious mileage on me, but I'm not THAT old. Still, gravity is working against me, as it does everyone. Then I thought back to an interesting episode I had with my back last year. I had started developing pain high in my spine level with the bottom of my shoulder blades. When the doctor got my X-rays back he called, all excited, "What did you do to yourself that fractured the crap (his word not mine) out of two vertebrae? They have all sorts of healed compression fractions. Did you injure yourself at one time?"
I started laughing because I could remember exactly when that happened, and I think I've mentioned it here before: I was in the front seat of a two-hole Pitts, Nikon in hand, all twisted around, while shooting over my shoulder at a four-ship formation of Pitts (the Carling Black Label Team). As we pulled into a loop, the guy flying me was late on the pull and hammered on extra G: I heard a loud pop in my back and screamed, "Get this thing on the ground!" It took three or four guys to get me out of the airplane. I never went to the doctor, and after a month or two, it stopped hurting. Until last year, that is. Thirty years after the fact.
Knowing now what was broken, I looked around at my life and figured out what I was doing to aggravate the buggered-up bones: A couple of times a day, I'm dragging my little airplane slightly uphill into the hangar using the handiest gadget on the planet: the Taildragger-Dragger (Google it). This is a special tow bar that grabs the tailwheel and makes moving the airplane about a million percent easier. The manufacturer should owe me a sales commission because every one of my students leaves with a firm admonition from me to get one. No one should own a tailwheel airplane without one.
However, as I thought about my days, I realized that even the Taildragger-Dragger isn't perfect. At least not in my case, because it holds my arms at the exact downward angle that concentrates the load directly on those two av-damaged bones. So, I started asking my students to push on an interplane strut as I moved the airplane, and my back stopped hurting. Everything in life should be this easy to solve. I didn't, however, suddenly spring back up two inches taller.
Certainly, the airplane-induced vertebrae compression started the shortening process, but various rapid departures off of motorcycles probably didn't help either. Neither did the butt-first contact with terra firma after falling off a T-28 wing. Or the time I slipped on the ice that had accumulated on the step of a Champ, and fell out of the cockpit. Or hitting the trailing edge of our C-140 and knocking myself nearly unconscious. Or tumbling off a Sherman tank. I've never said that I'm either graceful or sure-footed!
At least this explains why I've found myself flying with one more cushion under me; I was blaming that on my cushions breaking down. And it explains why the back of the cuffs on my jeans are now getting eaten into ragged half- moons. And shirts that were always a little short now fit fine. I don't think I like this.
So, now I'm getting short. Does that mean that I'm getting short in all ways and my deployment is about up? Is there a direct correlation between how much height you lose and how many years you have left? If I spend a lot of time flying around inverted and doing outside loops, stretching everything in my body in the process, will that slow down the shortening process? Probably not.
Anyway, if you're reading this and we've never met, when we finally do meet, don't go by first impressions. Remember that, inside, I'm much taller than I look.