Bart's Big Adventure.
The whole idea seemed a little far-fetched. After all, who Would believe that a noncommissioned officer would climb on his bike and ride across the country in the name of Air Force recruiting and retention?
But this is Master Sgt. Wayne Bartlett we're talking about. Bart. Everybody's Energizer Bunny. The guy with more pep than a one-hour Richard Simmons TV special. Suddenly, the idea doesn't seem so far-fetched after all.
In fact, if you're around Bart, the 89th Airlift Wing Year of Retention and Recruiting program manager, long enough, you'll want to find a set of jumper cables just to start your car. Or maybe your soul. He's the perfect guy to get the charge from, and that same energy carried him on two wheels across the midriff of the nation.
His journey was 35 days old and three days shy of his 40th birthday when the gangly, 6-foot, 158-pound, self-professed fitness nut rolled into Andrews Air Force Base, Md., June 1 to the cheers, hoots and hollers of an equally excited fan base - Bart groupies.
"His power is just amazing," said Master Sgt. Jim Rhodes, who has worked with his friend Bart for more than three years. "Everything he touches is perfect."
When he rolled down the slope of Route 66 into Albuquerque, Bart finished almost 150 miles through New Mexico in sub-freezing conditions, up steep grades and down twisting interstates. He'd already had 13 flat tires.
Exhausted? Yes. Deterred? No way. This is Bart we're talking about - the diametric opposite of a therapy session with comedian Richard Lewis.
He has biked for more than 10 years, run in 19 marathons and logged more bike miles than the Schwinn quality control geek. Bart scored a 53 on his most recent Air Force bike test. When he started his workout routine, finishing a 10-k run was his biggest hurdle. Tomorrow, he may have his eye turned toward a pedal-powered space shuttle.
All of this, he said, is to get him and others to focus on ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
"The Air Force provides you an opportunity to test your own limits," he said, his hand stretched toward a point on the horizon. "Not everyone will ride a bike cross country, but everyone in the Air Force will get an opportunity to do things they never thought they could and explore their own limits."
Now, it's just past 6 a.m. on May 5 - day five of his trip. Bart is talking to one of 27 other riding mates about his former job "X-raying airplanes." The conversation around the table with these bikers from "America by Bicycle," the group with which he's sharing this journey across the country, is lively and in many accents - South African, German, French and Texan.
As the morning brief continues, some notice Bart has bandaged himself from his first injury after riding the initial 850 miles: buttimus hurtalotimus. He's experimenting with something other riders are using to cure the affliction.
"I'm wearing two pairs of bike shorts," Bart said, tugging on the shorts clinging to his long legs. "Some of the guys said this helps. I'll give It a try."
He'll need the extra padding. This entire trip is roughly the equivalent of biking 150 Boston Marathons, riding eight to 10 hours each day. And he's got another 2,500 miles to go.
Just a boy from Texas
Dart has been testing his own limits since he was a boy growing up in Killeen, Texas, where his parents owned a feed store. He ran track, high-jumped 2 inches higher than himself and played baseball in high school. But life in the southwestern town, one where he didn't see a future, got a little monotonous for the self-described "hyperactive kid."
"Like others, I saw the Air Force as something that got me out of a small town," Dart said.
Over time, he worked in a number of jobs along the nondestructive inspection career path, examining the microscopic cracks on aircraft of all types. Then one day, life added another cast member to his active duty "Up With People" traveling road show, when he met and wed his wife, Mary, six years ago.
If Dart is the star, then Mary makes him a supernova, mimicking his contagious enthusiasm and providing the fusion energy for endeavors like the cross country bike ride.
She's also the one who got him home safely. While his "America by Bicycle" counterparts ended their journey in Beantown, Dart had to get home to Andrews. That meant Mary had to drive to Boston and lead Dart home. For three days, she and her husband trekked down the eastern seaboard. Mary rode 40 miles ahead and waited for Dart to catch up until they both arrived at Andrews on time to an awaiting crowd.
"Wayne looks at every day as a new beginning and sees it as a real pleasure to be alive," she said. "I can't think of a better person to spread that retention and recruiting message."
And she should know. This was, after all, the same Dart who walked into their Mildenhall, England, flat and said, "Pack your bags! We're going to Paris," and a few months later said, "Pack your bags! We're going skydiving!"
That riding idea
So it was no surprise to Mary when he came up with the idea of riding cross country. After all, something a tad more modern, like a car, airplane, dog sled or skateboard would be too boring for the man who plays piano by ear, paints, draws and enters triathlons despite the fact he can't swim (but finishes nonetheless).
"He's wanted to journey cross country like this for years," Mary said. "At first, I thought, 'Oh, you have to be kidding.'"
He wasn't. And soon after, he found himself chasing the idea more and more with only one real obstacle -- money. But in true Dart style, in a world where there are no showstoppers, downers, bummers or train wrecks, he convinced his Air Mobility Command leadership to fund the trip and raise awareness about recruiting and retention.
The command, 21st Air Force and the 89th Airlift Wing agreed, fronting $3,000 (about 81 cents for every mile Dart rode), and everybody won. He bought his own plane ticket to Los Angeles, and, after dipping his bike tire into the cool Pacific Ocean April 29, his dream of riding eastward and the two-wheeled, white-hot public relations campaign began.
Even before Bart started his trek, the Air Force learned its once sagging recruiting numbers are rising again. Gen. Michael Ryan, Air Force chief of staff, said in recent congressional testimony the focus now is on retention.
"By the time our airmen finish their first tour, they are well trained," Ryan said recently. "We want to keep them for a second term and indeed, a third term. We've focused much of our effort in keeping these quality people. They are essential to the operation of this Air Force."
This journey was no easy undertaking. Although he had biked long distances before, including retracing the route of Gen. George Patton in France, he had never rode for a stretch longer than 120 miles.
So every day, in the months before the journey, he pedaled around Andrews' 10-mile perimeter, and on weekends, he ground out a tedious 134-mile round trip journey between the base and Lookout Point, Md. On the final five days leading up to the U.S. trek, he made the Lookout loop three times. Afterward, Dart said he slept for nearly the entire weekend.
"You can't just jump on a bicycle and ride 3,950 miles. Like everything else, it starts small," Bart said.
The recruiting trail
And if the ride wasn't enough, after each day's trip, he met with recruiters, recruits and potential recruits, bubbling with energy and evangelizing the merits of an Air Force career. In Bart style, he used his bike ride as a metaphor for his career.
"It's really amazing what you can accomplish when you narrow your focus to today," he said. "That's the message I'm trying to deliver to recruits: When you come in the service, you have to not think about getting promoted to chief master sergeant. Don't think about getting promoted to fourstar general. Don't worry about all the appointments, obligations, schools and everything else.
"Just worry about the here and now," he continued. "Do the best job you can in basic training. Then do the best job you can in tech school. Then move on to the next challenge."
Staff Sgt. Diane Schmitt, a recruiter in Prescott, Ariz., let Bart talk to a handful of her recruits, at one of his first whistle-stops, which included Oklahoma, Ohio and New York. She said most came away with a broader picture about how the Air Force works. She and her potential airmen are more than two hours from the nearest base. Having another Air Force person to speak with, Schmitt said, was beneficial.
"They were talking with someone who wasn't a recruiter. That was good exposure," she said. "He's a wonderful speaker and very enthusiastic. He's obviously very good at what he does. They were all impressed."
Rhodes has heard Dart's verbal missives before, and never tires of them, despite his daily exposure to the Dart energy field -- where every day is a Christmas, every day is a birthday and every day is the Fourth of July. He knew if anyone could get the message out to the target audience, it was his friend.
"I told him he was crazy at first, but I truly appreciate what he's doing for the Air Force," Rhodes said. "I've never seen anyone in my career do anything comparable to this."
Retired Lt. Col. Mike Munk is one of the people who supervised the Tour de Bart and kept up the spirits of the other 27 bikers (unaffiliated with Bart's recruiting journey) along the way. Munk, a bicycle gold medalist and champion himself on several levels, said Dart's attitude contributed to his success.
"It's an awesome accomplishment, and doing it in 30 days is even more impressive," he said. "It's like a forced march. Everybody was a little unsure they could do it. This ride tested them beyond their limits. It reaches inside your soul and challenges you. It's a significant physical and emotional event."
The next hurdle
With 3,950 miles behind him, Dart now looks for his next challenge like Charles Lindbergh peering out toward the Atlantic Ocean. Mary said nothing is out of his reach.
"With Wayne, you never know what the next big hurdle is," she said, laughing. "We just take life one day at a time."
Meanwhile, Bart reflects on the event, still fresh on his mind and legs. "The term 'bragging rights' comes up a lot. So, I guess I have bragging rights. There were a lot of hard days. It was fun. I'd like to do it again."
So maybe the whole idea wasn't as far-fetched as was originally thought. Has anybody seen that pedal-powered shuttle?
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Wayne Bartlett, Master Sergeant|
|Author:||Tudor, Staff Sgt. Jason|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2001|
|Previous Article:||Thule Trippin'.|
|Next Article:||ON THE NEW FRONTIER.|