by Lt. Col. Robert E. Whaley, USAF
For twenty-three years I have not put a penny in my pocket, nor have I put on a garment without first searching the pockets for one. It’s become a habit so deeply seated that it could not possibly be broken, forgotten, or disregarded. If I am reasonably close to my car, house, or office, I hold the pennies in my hand until getting to a place where they can be put and saved. Otherwise I given them to friends, add them to tips, drop them in plant pots, or throw them away (only to sometimes have them returned by helpful strangers).
It was 1942. I was a newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, age 23, stationed at Biggs Field, El Paso, Texas. Mixed in with a whole squadron of characters whose basic philosophy was “Let’s tear up something or somebody right now” was a fearless little ex-Ohio State wrestler, Lt. Richard G. Varney (later a war hero in china, and working for the FAA last I heard). Varney and I were best friends and he was a great guy, but as a baby must have gotten an overdose of demon hormone pills; he was happiest when he could mash someone emotionally out of shape.
We had finished lunch in Tucson and was preparing for a return flight to El Paso. After I paid the check, some pennies were included with my change. As I slipped them into my pocket, Varney grabbed my arm, “Surely you aren’t going to put pennies in your pocket. Haven’t you heard that’s bad luck?” I could tell by the glint in his eye he had just then thought this up.
“Well, it is and if you put those pennies in your pocket you are in deep serious trouble. That’s a fact.”
“If I put a quarter in my pocket, I suppose the trouble will be 25 times as bad?”
“If it’s in with the pennies, yes.”
“Sounds like something you just invented. Let’s go.”
“Don’t ever say I didn’t warn you.” He walked away grinning.
Each of us got into separate C-43’s, taxied out to the runway, and took off. Just prior to breaking ground I heard a “pop” sound, but the runway was rough and I thought nothing of it. The plane flew beautifully.
I ended up off the airstrip about ten feet from our Squadron Orderly Room door. The plane was a wreck, but I was unhurt. As I climbed out of the cockpit, the Squadron Operations Officer was there glowering at me. I asked, “Is this where you wanted it parked, Sir?” He didn’t laugh. The right tire had blown on takeoff, and, as expected, Varney soon commented impishly, “You had pennies in your pocket.”
My next flight was a checkout in the B-10 (it will take an old-timer to remember that bomber), and it was an event since it marked my first venture into a big bird. I knew little about the B-10, its systems, or flying characteristics, but in those days to merely ask a question might have been taken as an indication of fear. The crew chief showed me how to start the engines and I was ready. But before I could taxi, I was signaled to hold as a young Chaplain’s assistant came running, wanting to go along. It was to be his first plane ride. The crew chief put him aboard, adjusted my passenger’s chute, hooked up the interphone, and waved us away.
We climbed to the north, leveled off at 16,000 feet, and proceeded as briefed to a point forty miles out before turning inbound to begin tracking runs for the AA batteries. With no warning the left engine sputtered and quit. While I sat there doing nothing except wondering what to do, the right engine quit. That was all the engines there were. It was frighteningly quiet.
At the first indication of trouble I’d automatically turned toward El Paso and lowered the nose to maintain flying speed. The old B-10 was soaring like a buzzard. I felt we could reach the field easily and radioed them I was coming in for a dead-stick landing. The field was postage stamp size, and if I misjudged my one and only approach in the least, my plane would become a flaming coffin. The odds against me getting away with it successfully were at least fifty to one, but I didn’t know that then.
The Chaplain’s assistant, whom I had forgotten, scared me by saying suddenly and loudly into the intercom, “Lieutenant, I’m going to jump out.”
“No, no, wait. We’re all right. I’m pretty sure we can make it.”
“Do you order me not to jump?” He obviously needed to do something other than just sit there, and he wanted guidance.
“I order you to sit still and shut up.”
Soon thereafter his voice came through again, thin, quiet, and greatly calmed. “Is it all right if I pray?”
“Yes.” Annoyed at first by this disturbance, I then thought it over and called him back. “And while you’re at it, please remember to mention me.”
Either his prayers or mine (I decided to help him) were answered, for mysteriously we reached Briggs with altitude to spare, circled three-fourths of the way around it, landed nicely on the first third of the landing area (no formal runways in those days), and came to an uneventful stop well short of the boundary fence. Amid the fire trucks, crash vehicles, ambulances, and the many onlookers was, of course, Varney. “Have any pennies in your pocket?” he wanted to know (I did). At the Officer’s Club that night, the banter was relentless:
“Hey, Moe, did you ever hear about the penny-dumb pilot?”
“If he keeps putting pennies in his pocket, he’ll soon find out if they come from heaven.”
“Not him. He’s on a flight plan to another place.”
“The hell, you say?”
In the circle of faces looking down on me as I lay there was Varney’s. He was serious and obviously concerned when he said, “Bob, maybe you had better quit putting pennies in your pocket.”
I agreed. While pennies could in no way imaginable influence flying, I had been involved in three major accidents and one very dangerous incident in less than a month. All my troubles had started with Varney deviling me about pennies. Something, it seemed, had to be done if I was to be around long—so I quit carrying pennies in my pockets.
It wouldn’t be right to say life became uneventful. Those days each turn of the hour hand was likely to provide exciting events, both on the ground and in the air, for the young Air Force pilot. Remember also that these were war years, but there were no accidents, incidents, or unusually close calls for me for two years.
Then it was 1944. I was a Captain, Commander of PQ Target Section, temporarily stationed in Rio Hato, Panama. Our purpose there was to simultaneously test radio-controlled aircraft in tropical salt air and run live target high altitude training missions for anti-aircraft troops. There had not been many successful missions as the heat, humidity, and salt air were lousing up aircraft servo units and electrical components considerably more than had been anticipated. I was increasingly irritable and impatient because of our poor showing.
One morning after we had been up until three o’clock the night before getting ten target aircraft ready, I was awakened to be told that none would function satisfactorily. In a state of sleepy fury, I grabbed a flying suit and stormed to the field. Our test pilot tried to explain various malfunctions to me as I climbed into the seat of the questionable PQ-14 for a quick trip around the field before we launched it without a pilot. I radioed the CQ-7 (target control aircraft) that I was ready, and down the runway we both went, with them following and controlling my aircraft. Just after becoming airborne my plane went into a left climbing turn, and I yelled for them to straighten me out; they replied that their control was negative. My disgust was positive, but grimly I disengaged the remote control unit and took over flying manually. Hmm. The controls remained locked in position, nor would the override spring work. I almost ruptured myself trying to move them. Bailing out was the only answer, except that for the first time in my military career I’d gotten into a cockpit without a chute.
Back in my office I suddenly wished that Varney was around. He couldn’t say I caused this one because of pennies in my pocket. But then I noticed the flying suit I’d hurriedly pulled on was not mine. Feeling around in the many zippered pockets, I found, as somehow I was sure I would, a penny.
Whether from that or as normal reaction to the crash, my knees gave way and I collapsed on the office floor. Almost two hours had gone by since my wild ride ended. A check at the hospital revealed I was sane, sober, and perfectly healthy. I changed that sober condition in short order.
Viewed from any angle this had to be something other than coincidence. Previously I might have been willing to believe power of suggestion affected my subconscious and caused difficulties, but now what possible explanation could account for the unusual mishaps which occurred only when I had pennies in my pocket, whether I knew about them or not? Neither was there any identifiable relation of associates, time, geography, suggestion, mission, or experience. What diabolical thing was happening to me and no one else—and why?
Since 1944 there’ve been no pennies in my pockets. I have flown over half the earth’s surface, dropped bombs, fired guns, photographed, refueled century-series fighters in flight, been fired at with rockets, cannon, and machine guns, made below minimum instrument landings, penetrated thunderstorms, run missions through typhoons, and circled five thousand feet above the detonation of an atomic bomb my crew and I had dropped (at Bikini atoll during tests in the 1950s). I have not even scratched a plane, merely experiencing the normal moments of panic and infrequent periods of stark terror which typically dot the life of every career pilot.
I’ve never met a person who seriously regarded any of this as more than interesting or a laughing matter—until, that is, they get ready to take a flight with me. Then they invariably seek assurance (sometimes pretending it’s all in fun) that I’ll not be carrying pennies. None really believe it would matter, yet somehow are unwilling to participate in any further experimentation. I feel basically the same. What would happen if I began putting pennies in my pockets after all these years?
No one will ever know.
Dad himself later wrote me: “The unpardonable mistake I made was ever giving this penny theory a single thought. I should not have conducted tests on an evident negative, or been angered at nothing, or dwelled upon a penny-associated analysis of happenings. I addicted myself with repeated injections of psychological poison. The mind has awesome power, and if one chooses to be ridiculously irrational, the subconscious is often mischievous enough to accommodate whatever incongruity can be conjured up. My accidents were all naturally caused and technically understandable, but I tangled my reasoning and blundered into a mental mix-up.” I blithely suggested he start carrying pennies again, but he shied away from the possibility. “Let’s let that particular ill-tempered imaginary tiger sleep through eternity,” he replied.
“My Competitive Parents,” January 20, 2010
"Goodbye to St. Paddy's Day," March 2, 2010
“Bob Whaley, Boy Lawyer,” March 28, 2010
"My Mother's Sense of Humor," April 4, 2010
“The Sayings of Robert Whaley,” May 13, 2010
“Bob Whaley and the Best Evidence Rule,” June 26, 2010
“Bob and Kink Get Married,” June 2, 2010
“Dad and the Cop Killer,” July 19, 2010
“Doug, Please Get My Clubs From the Trunk,” August 20, 2010
“The Death of Robert Whaley,” September 7, 2010
"My Missing Grandmother," December 26, 2010
"Bob Whaley Trapped in Panama," January 21, 2011
"The Death of My Mother," March 31, 2011