The friends and family were gathered to pay tribute to a life well-lived.
Officially a it was a "Visitation and Memorial Service" but it was more than that.
The parking lot was filled with motorcycles. Nearly every seat in the chapel was taken. No respectful hush there. Most everyone was chattering reliving exploits of the departed.
The chaplain began with a prayer. It turned out that the officiant Chaplain, Bob Browning was a college classmate of the belated Lieutenant Colonel, Air Force Retired, Charles J. Ferrari. "Chuck." He related how 306 young men had reported for duty as the very first class of cadets at the Air Force Academy.
Lined up they were asked to look at the classmate to the right and to the left and then were enjoined to the challenge that one of those three would not be present at graduation four years later.
That action was prescient, as, in fact, only 207 of those present that July day in 1955 did indeed graduate on July 3rd 1959.
All students in that first graduating class were trained to be Air Force navigators. Bob went to bombers and was a radar operator/bombardier in the B-52 when he was called to the ministry some four years later.
After seminary, he rejoined the Air Force as a chaplain and eventually retired after serving as Chaplain at the Air Force Academy.
Chuck, as did the majority of his fellow second lieutenants, elected to undergo further training to become Air Force pilots. Chuck was a tall, brown-eyed, lots of black hair, handsome young officer with the hot blood of ancient Rome pulsing through his veins.
Wine, women and song was his mantra, the archetypical fighter pilot.
Eventually he moved into the F-105 the premier fighter bomber of the era which led him to fly 40-plus missions into North Vietnam.
(To glimpse an F-105 look to the west after crossing the Platte River on I-80 between Lincoln and Omaha. A camouflaged example is mounted on a pedestal in typical flight attitude.) Col. Browning noted that about eight others of his and Chuck's classmates (yours truly included) plus wives, were also present.
Small in number and with everything in a state of flux, as the institution was just cutting its teeth to determine what direction to take, our class developed strong bonds with each other that continue today.
Chuck and a few others weren't exactly model cadets, operating barely within the bounds that would get themselves kicked out. Maybe his years in pre-college military school taught him where the limits were. Chaplain Bob didn't mention it, but during that during his early pilot career Chuck managed to endure two failed marriages. Something about being gone for long periods of time -- remember that one had to volunteer for second and third tours of duty in Vietnam -- plus a propensity to chase strange women evidently was something that his wives didn't seem to appreciate!
Fighter pilots of that era had a well-earned reputation for hard drinking rowdy behavior and Chuck fit right in. In fact, he most likely was a leader in the good times.
And why not? Their war had a million restraints placed on the warriors headed north -- don't bomb Ho Chi Minh's palace, and don't shoot at the MiGs on the ground at Kep Airbase or drop bombs on the runway as you flew past to drop on some inconsequential target in Hanoi.
Targets that were chosen daily by President Johnson and Secretary McNamara thousands of miles away in safe Washington. Flying into the Rolling Thunder that were the targets in North Vietnam was fraught with danger and all too many of Chuck's friends were shot down, killed in action or became POWs in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
Why not freelance a bit on those missions and select a little more appropriate target as one flashed past at a thousand miles per hour?
Who can blame those warriors for drinking a bit too much the night before a BS mission day after day?
Unfortunately for Chuck, his commanders did object to such behavior and made corrections in his attitude that had consequences for future promotions. With the Vietnam war still raging, Chuck managed to a secure a slot at the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB.
Academically he was no dummy, just ornery. He already possessed the skilled hands of a test pilot and the school just honed that skill to a fine edge. Fighter, bomber, tanker or cargo, he could fly each well, though his heart was always with the fast movers.
Again, his antics almost caused his downfall. Late one night his good friends' wife heard a tapping on her on base housing bedroom window.
The next door neighbor related that "Your friend is up in our tree and is bleeding bad!" Seems that following that afternoon's commander's lecture about how drunk driving had to stop, Chuck proceeded to do just that. Almost home, he'd lost control and his car tried to climb the tree. His friends extracted him from the wreckage, took him into their house and stopped the scalp wound bleeding with large butterfly bandages.
Going to the dispensary would have gotten the attention of the commander so Chuck's friend conned the flight surgeon into coming to his house next day to sew up the now-sober Chuck's scalp. A couple days healing, he was barely presentable enough to attend class again. The car? Well they threw a tarp over it until towed away under the cover of darkness.
Chuck retired from the Air Force about the first day possible. He then went to work for United Airlines in their training center near Denver. His last job with United was to validate the fidelity of the Boeing 777 flight simulator to assure that from the pilot's vantage, it flew just like the real aircraft.
An FAA colleague visited with me that he enjoyed working with the really competent Chuck but I suspect that he never took an opportunity to party with him. Although born and raised in Boston, Chuck and his wife of 30 some years elected to retire in the Denver area. They raised four attractive children that found productive lives in the Denver area.
Proudly, Chuck and Linda became grandparents to 10 children. He was into mountain climbing and enjoyed the challenge of the 14'ers, those mountain peaks taller than 14,000 feet. Skiing was a lifelong love and typical Chuck had to always be a little faster or a little more daring than the buddies he cajoled into skiing with him. Along the way, Chuck discovered motorcycles; especially his best of the lot BMWs.
Like his beloved fighter aircraft they go fast enough to challenge one's mettle. The group called Rolling Thunder adopted him and he them. Rolling Thunder's birthright is to keep the memories of this nations POW and MIA alive until all are accounted for.
Several of those listed were fellow aircrews that Chuck left behind on all too many of his missions north. Besides all that most of those who ride have about as much regard for the "politically correct" society as Chuck lived throughout his exciting life.
Try the challenge of riding 1,000 miles in one day--Denver to Miles, Montana on two wheels. How about cruising at 80 mph and having Chuck breeze alongside taking your picture with his cell phone. He fit right in and the group was present in force to tell him goodbye. A heavy smoker, lung cancer did him in. Three weeks from discovery until he died, the cancer had metastasized throughout his body.
Gone but never forgotten. Truly a modern warrior in the mode of his ancestors; the noble Romans that conquered the then known world. America thrives on warriors such as he. I am proud to be counted a friend but in no way could I keep up! That is the way I saw it.