Here, now, the exclusive Bob Schulte story. Read the previous entry if you want the background on this. Otherwise just read it. Thanks.
By MIKE MULLEN
"It was a great, beautiful morning –– just after sunrise," he remembers now.
Mandan, N.D. resident Bob Schulte, now 67, was a helicopter pilot for the first 30 years of his adult life. This began when Schulte was a 22-year-old in the National Guard, spending much of his tour of duty in Germany. His duties included shuttling troops between several of the American post-World War II bases.
Often Bob flew more than a dozen troops of one unit, a job that called for an H-34: the military’s largest chopper. Schulte was often called upon to pilot a full load.
One of these flights etched itself so sharply into Bob’s memory he could still tell you what the weather was like that morning.
Bob Schulte’s is a story of pressure and consequence.
What does a man do when he feels eyes on him? What if the eyes belonged to a queen? Or to his boyhood idol?
Where does a man go to get away from the weight of gravity?
What does a man do in freefall – falling faster and faster every second? What does he do when his eyes fill with smoke and 20 lives are suddenly in his hands?
Bob was shuttling a group of infantry troops from the Grafinvere base to Hannau, a routine 200-mile trip.
The H-34 ran smoothly across the flat skyline for an hour and a half. Then, deep in the engine, an oil line ruptured. Immediately thick black smoke poured into the cockpit.
The fire alert light came on. The only other time he’d seen this red button light up was during the routine check before a flight.
"This was no precheck," Schulte said. "Besides, I didn’t need any light to tell me. That great big engine is right below me and the cotton-pickin’ cockpit was filled with smoke."
Schulte cut the engine and prepared for auto-rotation: using the chopper’s given momentum and wind to bring down the helicopter.
Schulte thought of the dozens of times he'd brought down a chopper in auto-rotation. But never before had there been these 19 men on board. Never had there been this smoke.
Never this pressure.
Tony Schulte, Bob's father, worked full-time at the John Morrell meat factory.
"We were very poor," Bob Schulte says now. "We lived in the poor part of town."
Schulte had taken part-time jobs at John Morrell over the summers. He grew up knowing he’d start full-time when high school was over.
In 1950's America, when Bob was a teenager, baseball was king.
Mickey Mantle in the Bronx, Willie Mays in Harlem, Ted Williams in Boston –– and in the middle of the country, a young catcher was about to throw his hat into the ring.
Bob Schulte’s first brush with major league baseball came after attending Cathedral high school. Schulte played on the Air National Guard team. His coach, Vince Bruggelman, had a connection with a Baltimore Orioles’ scout and informed him of the 17-year-old standout.
At 6-foot, 180 pounds, Schulte was the rarest of finds in a catcher: an able receiver behind the plate with a strong arm, he could also change a game in the batter’s box.
One night, as players dressed in the locker room before a game, Bruggelman approached Schulte and told him that two pro scouts would be there to watch him.
As the game started Bob noticed two men sitting directly behind home plate. Certainly they liked how comfortable the kid looked catching.
And maybe they liked even more that Bob Schulte hit two home runs, the first a towering shot into a cornfield beyond the wall in left.
The Orioles offered him a contract after he graduated from Cathedral. Schulte’s mother Bernice would have none of it: college came before pro baseball.
Bob was baffled. No one on his mother or father’s side had ever gone to college. But there was no changing Bernice’s mind.
So he went to college, and pitchers and baserunners in the area probably hated him for it, so the White Sox wanted a look.
Schulte, then 22, was invited to try out for the Chicago White Sox after completing his junior season at South Dakota State University, during which he hit for a .659 average.
At the tryout, Schulte found himself at a tryout staring down former pro pitcher Dizzy Trout. Crushing him.
After a series of home runs and line drives, Schulte sat down in the dugout only to be called back on by Trout. The catcher was pitted against one of Chicago’s best young pitching prospects.
The change of pitcher made no difference. Schulte hit and hit and hit.
The White Sox told reporters that at 22, Schulte was too old to spend much time in the minors. If anything, he would make a stop at Triple A before being moved up to start at catcher – a position the White Sox needed to fill.
With another year left at SDSU, Schulte could not sign with the White Sox. But when scout Bill Kimball put a hand on his shoulder at the end of the tryout and said, "Good luck next season," Schulte knew the implications.
He was going to play pro ball.
While attending SDSU, where he also played three years as starting halfback on the football team, Schulte married his girlfriend Euella. They lived together in a 15-by-15 foot apartment.
To make ends meet Bob and Euella cleaned school buildings, and Bob also signed up for the SDSU Reserve Officers Training Corps. He was paid 90 cents a day, which nearly covered his rent.
Harry Forsyth, assistant baseball coach at SDSU, was a licensed helicopter pilot in the national guard. Schulte had been intrigued from the start.
"He knew I flew helicopters," Forsyth said. "And he would not stop asking me about it."
Finally, he took his catcher up in a chopper ride around the air base.
As they climbed, the air pressure dropped and gravity seemed to fall away. The horizon pulled apart. Bob loved every minute.
"Helicopters aren’t for everybody," Forsyth admits. "Some people are scared to death by ‘em. Some people, though – like Bob – can’t get enough."
Schulte signed up for the ROTC, knowing that if he couldn’t play professional baseball, he could happily fly helicopters for the rest of his working life.
But Schulte could play pro ball, and the White Sox wanted to pay him handsomely for it. Shortly after Schulte finished his senior season at SDSU -- he hit over .500, again -- Bill Kimball paid a visit to Bob and Euella’s apartment. Schulte signed a contract with the White Sox. In March of 1960, he was to report to Lincoln, Nebraska for spring training with Chicago’s Triple A team.
The contract included a signing bonus of $30,000. Once the ink was dry and Bill Kimball was out the door, Bob and Euella started celebrating.
"A couple of college kids, back then – man, we’d never had that kind of money," Schulte said. "We used to clean the classrooms at school to make money to pay for our house and kids. $30,000 was a lot to us."
But there was a problem. Schulte’s four-year ROTC tour of duty was to begin in October of that year. The White Sox had told Schulte that they would consider him after his tour of duty, but Schulte did not want his future in jeopardy.
"I didn’t want to do that," he said. "I had a wife and a kid to take care of. I went (to SDSU) for sports, but after a year or so I started thinking, ‘I could get a degree here.’"
So Schulte drafted a letter to the commanding general of the Fifth Army.
In the letter he wrote about his contract his childhood dreams of playing in the major leagues. Schulte offered to serve a six-month tour of duty, and to pay back the fees of aviation training.
Colonel Frederic Ray, Schulte’s commanding officer, sent a joint letter in support of Schulte’s request. The colonel wrote that Bill Kimball had told him of the "great possibilities" for Cadet Schulte.
He also warned about the consequences in forcing Schulte into service.
"It is my opinion that failure to approve this request will be an injustice to the individual in prohibiting him from taking advantage of this opportunity to initiate his chosen career and lead to resentment for this denial," Col. Ray wrote.
In his own letter, Schulte wrote that while he had made his ROTC commitment in good faith and with no intention of quitting, he now wanted "an opportunity to establish myself in my life’s work."
A few weeks later, Schulte would receive a one-page letter signed by Patrick Mackey, the Adjutant General to the U.S. Army.
Like Schulte’s and all military letters, the memo was organized by numbers.
"1. Recommend disapproval. The conditions stated are not considered sufficient…"
As they read the letter, Bob and Euella cried.
"It hurt when I couldn’t go," Schulte said. "That really felt bad."
Upon hearing the news, the White Sox sent a letter to Schulte. It said that he would have to write back to them and ask to be let out of his contract.
A few months into his tour of duty, Schulte was contacted by Major General Creighton Abrams, his commanding officer in the Air National Guard. Abrams wanted Bob to play for the Third Armored Division team in the European World Tournament Army, Marine, and Naval teams were also assembled for the tournament.
Abrams said he wanted to win.
Schulte expressed concern about how the tournament would look on the yearly report issued on each private.
Abrams told him not to worry. He would write Schulte’s report.
That worked for Bob, so he accepted the offer and became the team’s starting catcher.
Early in one of the tournament games, it was announced that the day's attendance included the most famous living baseball player in the world -- Yankee legend Joe Dimaggio.
To the young catcher from Sioux Falls there was no more powerful figure than Joltin’ Joe. Dimaggio was Mr. Coffee, Mr. 56-game hit streak, Mr. Marilyn Monroe.
Bob’s team was in the field during the announcement. He remembers it took a long time to get out of the inning. He remembers coming up to bat as the next inning started.
The young Schulte watched the first pitch go by.
Then the private read and turned into the second pitch ball and sent a white speck over the wall in left. He trotted to first base and made the turn for second with his head down. After touching the second bag and turning once more, Schulte couldn’t help stealing a glance.
There, in the stands behind third base: Dimaggio. He was looking right at Bob, smiling. Clapping.
“It was kind of a funny feeling, almost embarrassing in a way to see him clapping for me. I mean, golly – he was an American hero,” Schulte said.
Schulte’s team went on to win the tournament. His report checked out.
The U.S. Army had denied Bob Schulte’s opportunity at pursuing his "life’s work," so instead the Army became his life’s work.
After his tour of active duty, Schulte moved to Bismarck and joined the North Dakota National Guard. 38 years later, he retired as the Deputy Commanding General of the Fifth Army, a two-star position.
In 1996, when he had been named a Major General, Schulte got to travel to England as a representative with an Army marksmanship team. The team was to put on an exhibition for a crowd that included Queen Elizabeth.
A large Englishman in a suit approached Schulte. The team was told not to speak unless spoken to.
Schulte was more nervous than on his wedding day: "I figured with my big mouth I ain’t never gonna’ make this."
The Queen arrived by fancy car. Security was thick. The Americans stood in a line waiting as her majesty approached.
"She’s such a little lady – I didn’t know that before," Schulte said. "And she walked right up to me and stuck her hand out and said, ‘How do you do sir?’ She was just such a warm and lovely lady."
The soldiers took lunch with the Queen. Before the shooting exhibition, one of the marksman approached Schulte. He asked if Schulte wanted to take a few shots.
The Major General said sure, he’ll take a few shots. After admiring the sniper rifle he was given, Schulte aimed and settled his vision. He eyed the target through sheets of rain.
His first shot struck three millimeters off the bullseye.
The next three hit dead on.
Schulte also took a full-time job as plant superintendent at Cloverdale Meat when he returned from active duty. In 1991, he retired as Cloverdale’s Chief Executive Officer.
He winters in Arizona, where the General also avidly follows spring training. Through a mutual friend has developed a relationship with Los Angeles Angels outfielder Darrin Erstad. Schulte follows Erstad’s Angels and the Minnesota Twins. He’s fond of the Twins young catcher, Joe Mauer. Maybe Mauer reminds him of someone.
Mandan native Don Hanson has been a pro baseball scout for more than 10 years, and a friend of Schulte’s for many more. The two sat reminiscing some time ago, joking about softball teams they played on "a hundred years ago."
Then the conversation came back to the chance to play pro baseball, and Schulte looked into Hanson’s eyes with seriousness.
"Man, Don, I can say – without bragging – I’da made it," Schulte said. "I’da made it."
Hanson did him one better.
"If he was 17 years old, he’d be a first-round draft pick," he said. "Bill Kimball told me that Bob would’ve been an All Star."
One day scouts show up to watch him, and he hits a couple homers for them. Then a few more for the White Sox. There's Joe Dimaggio and "I'll be damned if I didn't hit a home run.”
Three bullseyes for the Queen. All with an "Aw, shucks" grin. All fun and games.
Then one day his engine catches fire and smoke hits his eyes and he has no choice but to fall out of the sky.
What does a man do under pressure?
The H-34 took less than a minute to descend from 3,000 feet. The ground still zipped by at 90 knots as it got closer and closer out the windshield. The pilot flared the great chopper, pulling the controls until his tail nearly touched the ground.
Bob found himself looking up at the sky. His backwheel caught in the dirt, and the body of the helicopter slapped down.
The still-smoking H-34 jarred back on impact, shattering the meadow’s cool stillness. The jolt signaled to the troops on board that they were back on earth.
The hatch door flew open and 20 men piled out and ran away from the smouldering wreckage. But the H-34 did not explode, and within minutes everyone was joking and laughing and hugging each other.
The military report would later document that, the accident was no fault of the pilot, Private Bob Schulte, who executed a textbook landing in auto-rotation. No injuries.
No one wondered whether Bob was in the right place.
"I’m sure everyone was scared shitless for a minute there," Schulte said. "When that happens, they’re at the mercy of the pilot. But you’ve just gotta’ go ahead and do your thing, and we all came out fine."
Euella has seen everything. Every game she could – "Thousands," Bob said – every event, every ceremony. Every plaque, every ribbon and every medal is in the Schulte’s basement. Over the 40 years she’s know him, she’s compiled a binder of newspaper clippings that runs 4 inches deep.
It’s all there, if you want to see it. It all happened, Schulte says, and he can prove it. But Bob doesn’t want to talk about all that.
He’d rather tell you about his grandkids.
Michael, 15, played catcher on a Little League team that made it to three Little League World Series.
It all sounds so familiar: Michael’s pretty big for his age. Good receiver. Strong arm. And "God, can he hit," Bob says, twice.
Michael and his grandpa talk catcher, sure, but Bob’s main advice is to hit the books. He tells all his grandkids to prepare for an adult life that may not include sports.
Michael says that if he can’t play pro baseball someday, he wants to be in the Air Force.