Traditionally, when we gather to remember a fellow military aviator who has “flown West,” we throw a nickel on the grass as we leave. There are a lot of stories for why we do this, but below is the one I like best.
It started in the Korean War, or maybe even years before (we know it was no later than the 50s because that’s when phone calls went from a nickel to a dime).
When a fighter pilot would leave on a particularly dangerous mission (in peacetime or combat), he’d toss a nickel on the grass by the aircraft. That way, if he didn’t come back, his buddies would be able to make “the call” to his loved ones. Along the lines of bringing an umbrella to a picnic, or buying life insurance, the superstition was that if your buddies had the money to make the call, they wouldn’t need to.
The tradition sparked a song, “Throw a Nickel on the Grass” (warning – this contains some profanity), which in turn earned a place in other poems and songs that included the reference.
Thursday, I was far away from the squadron when I learned of the death of Luc Gruenther, another aviator I consider one of “my guys.” I toasted him and threw my nickel alone.
There are far too many nickels on the grass.