"I can distill my life down to two elements that have probably constructed who I am today," member Jim Frank said. "I would label them as athletics and military. They've helped create who I am."
It's hard to define what makes a life what it is. But Jim can easily see how both the choices he's made and the opportunities he's had have brought him to his 70th year of life—now full with a wife of 42 years, two children and two grandchildren.
A basketball scholarship is where his story begins, as it took him to the University of Wisconsin—an opportunity he wouldn't have had without the scholarship. From there, he started grad school and took a side job with the Department of Justice, FBI.
From 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. (after a full day of classes) Jim worked as a Security Patrol Clerk—a form of late-night security in case the bureau received any calls. "It was secretly boring, but you became immersed in every aspect of the activities of the FBI," he said.
But it was a chance—a chance to complete all of the core basic administrative training to apply to the FBI Academy, Quantico. At 22, Jim already had a government job with the highest security clearance and a plan of where he wanted to go.
Then something changed.
It was 1965, and the Vietnam War was starting to bubble. "I remember seeing a poster when I went to work, and it was in front of a Navy recruiter. It had a very intriguing picture of this handsome, debonair gentleman standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier with a jet airplane, and it had some amazing statistics of what the aircraft could do," Jim said. "The caption above him said from 0 to 10,000 feet—Mach-1—in 54 seconds—speed of sound in less than a minute. I looked at that and I was very impressed."
As Jim stared at the poster, a recruiter asked him a question that sent him in another direction. "Do you want to talk?" the recruiter asked.
So, less than six months away from beginning his training as a special agent for the FBI, Jim enlisted in the Navy's officer training program. For three months, he was tested—his eyes, his ears and his brain—until he was given the chance to try and get into the flight program. "You're never given that job. You have to earn it," Jim said.
He earned it.
"The programs are disciplined. They're rigorous. They're demanding. It's physical, academic and flying." It took two years for Jim to earn his wings, and he spent time stationed around the United States flying T-34s, T-2Bs, F-9s and A-4s as part of the training command.
"When you're in the cockpit, you're so intently busy. You're often totally oblivious to being in awe of yourself," Jim said about his experience having control over such a large, fast machine. "It has an element of man/machine bonding, and you want to get really good at it—more so in the Navy because you're not going to land on a runway. You're going to land on a ship that's moving 30 knots through the ocean."
There were occasional moments when Jim would realize that he did something "pretty cool," but it usually wasn't until after the fact. "Suddenly, you're dripping wet with sweat, full of fear, but you weren't aware."
Jim eventually got assigned to Whidbey Island to continue flying A-6s, which was another opportunity that would impact the future in two very different ways.
Jim worked as a flight instructor, and flew the A-6 Intruder, which, during those times, was one of the most sophisticated, top-secret airplanes in use. But it wasn't the plane that would leave a lasting impression. Instead it was the gal he met soon after.
"After a few weeks, I met—through a long-winded and romantic story that I won't go into—a wonderful lady," Jim said. "I like to call her my war bride because I met her while I was in the military service."
They met in June, were engaged in September and set to marry in January, right before Jim was scheduled to leave for Vietnam.
Then a basketball game changed everything.
During a recreational game against some Marines, 10 days before his wedding, Jim blew his kneecap off to the side. The injury took him to the hospital and prevented him from going to Vietnam. "I often said I had this line of duty injury because I was playing ball with the Navy," Jim joked.
"At the time, it was extremely difficult because you spend your entire time in the military training to do what this was—go into the combat zone. I felt awful. My wife was delighted."
Jim was wheeled through his wedding, through the arch of swords made by his fellow officers and then straight back to the hospital, where it took nine months to heal. His squadron left during this time, and he lost several wingmates. "In hindsight, I can be realistic. I'm still here."
And he's never short on stories about what it was like over there, since he meets with old friends regularly to talk about that time. "That little divot that I missed, I can still live vicariously through the group I get together with, who were there. We get together and lie to each other—embellish and brag. You don't lose those relationships. When someone acts as though they're looking out for you, covering your 6, you end up bonding a certain way. They become lifelong friends."
During his last six months in the Navy, Jim worked as a project officer. And after six-and-a-half years in the military, he moved on to the technology sector, where he could use his analytical, mechanical brain, and still work closely with people.
He's kept the core values he learned while serving, primarily the call to help others. He now works professionally as an entrepreneur's coach, and he's an avid volunteer, and has donated his time as a Little League baseball coach, as a basketball coach with the Boys and Girls Club, at Overlake Hospital and with many other organizations.
It's been an important part of his life to take the unexpected and turn it into something positive. "How you handle all the potholes and log jams that you encounter in life is what life's all about," he said.
But most of all, he knows he's a lucky man to have experienced all that he has, especially as a Navy pilot. "Not everybody gets to have that thrill. I can say I checked that box in life."