By Jennifer Koniuk
He wears his dog tags every day, reminding himself of his six fallen friends from the Air Force.
John Tate, founder of Tate’s Cocktail Bar in downtown Winston-Salem and CFO of Human Strategy Partners Firm, was in the corporate world before deciding to open the bar. He was CFO of Dole Food Company, CFO of Williams-Sonoma, COO at Krispy Kreme and COO at Restoration Hardware.
Tate, however, wasn’t always a businessman.
After graduating the University of Texas at Austin, Tate enlisted in the Air Force. Upon graduating training, Tate spent a year as a military pilot during the Vietnam War and then served as a transport pilot and fighter pilot for five more years.
“It was a natural family thing to enroll in ROTC and become a pilot,” said Tate. “My grandfather was a fighter pilot in WWI and my dad was a fighter pilot in WWII and then spent four years as a career Air Force guy.”
Tate said during the late 60’s and 70’s being in ROTC was difficult. During college, people would throw eggs and food at the boys during ROTC marching practices. He also said the Vietnam War was so unpopular that people would look down upon those in the military.
“There was no gratitude and everyone connected you with that evil war,” he said.
Tate said he wasn’t well suited for the military life.
“I wasn’t a ‘rules guy’,” he said.
According to Tate, he had to learn to follow orders during training and he vividly remembers his first week at the Reese Air Force Base.
“They put is in the cheapest, barest Motel 6 you could imagine and the first week they are mean to you, shout at you and tell you you’re stupid and a toad,” he said. “They try to break you down week by week but the day you graduate you are suddenly one of their brothers.”
Even though pilot training is similar to marines training, Tate said that being a pilot is much different than being on the ground during war. Tate thinks he escaped some of the horror of the war by being in the Air Force.
“If you’re on the ground it’s absolutely rare to impossible to not do something you will regret,” he said. “When you kill someone face to face I don’t think you’re ever the same person again and when you have to do it over and over you’re certainly not and that’s not something we had to face[WFU1] .”
Tate loved flying. He said that there are two things tied as the best moments in his life and flying in the Air Force is one of them.
“I got to fly fast airplanes,” he said. “I could talk for hours about how amazing it is to be upside down chasing another airplane.”
He was serious.
Not only did Tate love flying planes but he also loved his lucky t-shirt.
“Air Force pilots are very superstitious,” he said. “They repeat certain things that they think must work.”
Tate wore a white t-shirt with a band around the chest with a Hawaiian pattern every time he flew, for six years.
“I wouldn’t go up in the air without that shirt.”
And it’s a good thing he didn’t. Tate had six terrifying moments where he thought he was going to die. Flying a big transport from Charleston, S.C. to the Ascension Islands off the coast of Africa was one of them.
Tate was flying while his co-pilot was sleeping for the 12-hour trip and didn’t realize that the weather radar had failed. There were serious clouds that obscured his view, he said, and all of a sudden it was like they ran into a brick wall.
“We ran into a major thunderstorm that shook us so hard that sitting in the pilot seat I didn’t know if we were going up or down, how fast or at what altitude,” said Tate. “It was shaking us so hard.”
The plane was struck by lightning three times.
“I knew we were done,” Tate said.
Thirty-five seconds later, however, they exited the cloud and despite the fact that the lightning strikes hit the nose of the plane completely destroying the radar system, Tate made it safely to the ground.
“I can’t even describe how terrifying it was,” he said. “I thought the wings were going to fall off and we were going to plunge into the ocean.”
After six years of flying and a t-shirt full of holes, Tate made a tough decision to leave the Air Force because he said he felt there were better opportunities in the outside world.
After leaving the Air Force, Tate had a job lined up as a financial analyst, spent years in the corporate world making his mark on Wall Street and then opened Tate’s.
Tate believes that being in the Air Force gave him a leg up in the corporate world.
“A lot of people stress out under pressure,” he said, “and when I’m stressed I think about being in an airplane at 36,000 feet during a thunderstorm.” “It helps you keep things in perspective – as long as we’re not going to die today, things will be okay.”
Tate loves the corporate world. He said his experiences since his service have been very gratifying and believes he has a dream job, however, he misses flying.
“I’ve always missed the flying since I got out, he said. “I think about it a lot but I think I made the right decision.”
Tate spends Veterans Day quietly each year, remembering his fallen friends.
“I don’t meet that many veterans today,” he said, “but it’s always nice when I do.”
Published: Nov. 7