By, Lacy Nelson
At the end of a cul-de-sac in a small neighborhood right outside the Oxford city limits, there is an orange brick house that sits back from the street, atop a long driveway with a large dip.
Most people take the driveway real slow – you swear you can almost feel your stomach drop when you hit the dip and then go back up.
Paul Nelson, however, takes it fast; pushing down the accelerator and coming to a screeching halt just feet away from the garage door. Even more impressive? He can take the drive backward just as fast.
And this might just be the perfect metaphor for the past few decades of his life – taking it fast.
Standing in his front yard today, Nelson remembers being a young boy staring up at the sky and seeing small dots flying overhead – military planes from nearby Columbus Air Force Base.
He would wave to them and think about his boyhood heroes, flyboys like Claire Chenault, who would zoom across the sky going what he figured must be a million miles an hour.
“One day I want to do that.”
And from his front yard in Oxford a dream was born. A dream that would take him halfway across the world and back again.
Becoming Doc Voodoo
After he graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1989, Nelson was admitted to Uniformed Services University’s School of Medicine outside Washington, D.C., and then completed his family medicine residency just a few miles away at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Following his graduation from residency in 1996, Nelson received his first overseas assignment to Incirlik Air Base outside Adana, Turkey.
Nelson remembers how scared he was after receiving his orders and realizing he would be moving his family to the other side of the globe.
“This sounds goofy but I didn’t know if the dirt in Turkey would be like the dirt here. Or if the trees would be like the trees here.”
As it turns out, it was pretty much the same dirt as Mississippi, just halfway around the world.
Nelson and his family quickly fell in love with Turkey; extending their tour for another year and taking every opportunity to travel and immerse themselves in the culture.
After his three years in Turkey came to a close, Nelson received orders to his dream assignment as a flight surgeon for a F-16 fighter squadron at Spangdalehm Air Base in Germany.
And it was in Germany where he became “Doc Voodoo,” revered as the ‘World’s Greatest Flight Surgeon by the F-16 pilots of the World Famous 23rd Fighter Squadron.
“Being the world’s greatest flight surgeon and being beloved by your fighter squadron is a great fit for someone with a big ego and an insecurity complex.”
Nelson was sometimes unsure if he was living in a dream. While he was zooming across Europe pulling G’s in a flight suit and aviators straight from ‘Top Gun,’ he was still that boy from Mississippi who watched planes in his front yard. This life almost felt too good to be true.
You can’t ground a flyboy
After six years of back-to-back overseas tours, Nelson and his family returned home to the US; landing in San Antonio, Texas. Here, he was able to buy his family their first house and drive instead of fly home for Christmas, and, after three years of backseating in a fighter jet, he was a student studying for a master’s in public health and completing a residency in aerospace medicine.
However, he missed flying; it had become an addiction after three years racking up hours in fighter jets, and in Texas he wasn’t getting any time in the cockpit.
And as it turned out, grounding a flyboy just isn’t that easy.
In 2005, Nelson could barely believe it when he received his orders to go “home” to Columbus Air Force Base to be the Chief Flight Surgeon and be back in the cockpit again.
It was a one in 50-something chance and he got it.
Nelson said it was his dream job – something many of his colleagues, who were vying for jobs overseas or at big operational bases, just couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around.
For the next three years, Nelson flew over his boyhood home just up the road in Oxford, telling his parents to run out to the front yard and wave as he flew by – looking like a small dot in the sky; just like the ones he saw as a young boy.
Come back down
Once again, the dream had to come to an end. When you’re on military time, you’re on borrowed time. So, the family packed their lives away in cardboard boxes and turned the page to a new chapter.
This time, the chapter began out west — in Spokane, Washington — where Nelson would command an aerospace medicine squadron; however, about a year and half into his command, he was deployed to Afghanistan and while there received orders.
And he couldn’t believe it. The Air Force was sending him back home to Mississippi — this time to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi.
As Nelson often jokes, he joined the military to see the world but 13 years of his career were spent just a few hours from where he grew up.
“Serving in the Air Force was wonderful for our young family, but as the kids grew up and my and my wife’s family got older, the reassignments home to the South were an unexpected blessing.”
The now Colonel Nelson was the Chief Flight Surgeon at one of the Air Force’s largest hospitals and, to sweeten the deal, became the flight surgeon for the Hurricane Hunters – the airmen tasked with tracking and flying into hurricanes and tropical storms.
Nelson was supposed to retire out of Keesler. His wife begged him too. His kids told him too. His colleagues recommended it.
Instead, Nelson took another assignment — his final one – at Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. Nelson, now the consummate “Old Colonel,” taught at the War College; mentoring young airmen as they began their Air Force careers.
And because the universe has a funny way of bringing things full circle, Nelson’s house on base was next door to the very house his boyhood hero, Claire Chenault, lived in while stationed in Alabama. Once again, it almost felt too good to be true.
North[west] toward home
In October of 2020, Nelson closed the longest chapter of his life when he retired from a 32-year career in the United States Air Force. As his last day in uniform came to an end, he stepped outside into the cool, fall Alabama air and saluted one last time as ‘Taps’ played over the base speakers.
He then got in his car and drove northwest toward the long driveway with the large dip in it just outside the Oxford city limits. The place where this entire journey started, where it would end and where it would begin again.
“I never considered that we would return to Oxford but it just felt right to come back and connect with the community, making sense of the long journey around the world…right back to where it all started.”