Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Like Hawks In The Nest

When I was a child in Florida, the fighter jets used to come in so low that the roaring of the engines caused our aluminum blinds to rattle. It used to be that I could run outside and, staring up into the sun, see the words "Navy" or "Marines" stenciled in black against the flat-gray undersides of their fuselages.

These sense-memories imprinted upon my brain have, in retrospect, come to define nearly every aspect of my life. To this day at commercial airports, small things like the smell of jet fuel or the whine of idling turbines take me back to being a scrawny kindergartner. Between flights, I'm once again riding my bike along the curving streets of NAS Cecil Field.

It's not a feeling that most people I talk to can understand.

My father joined the Navy when I was about three years old. When he took the oath of enlistment at 33, unable to become a fighter pilot himself, my father elected to do the next best thing--become an aviation weapons technician. My sister hadn't been born yet, and I had barely come to know my world as anything outside my front yard. When my mother and I found ourselves relocated to Tennessee, and later to Florida, I embraced the sudden changes with a certain childish sense of apathy. To me, the military family life was one that I came to accept as "normal."

I played with other children in preschools funded by the Department of Defense. My mother did her grocery shopping at Naval commissaries. When I went with my parents to the movies--"Top Gun" had been an early favorite--the screens showing the latest films were all property of the U.S. Navy. It's strange, the way that military life always tries to replicate the normalcy of the civilian world. All the same, even the very best attempts, the most well-appointed military neighborhoods, still manage to come off vaguely wrong. They reek of the hollow pastel cheer of 1950's suburbia. Looking back, I am reminded of bowls of waxen fruit; still life writ large. They struggle for authenticity, but they never fully shed that sallow, artificial cast.

When I was five years old, my father was called to serve a brief tour on the carrier Theodore Roosevelt. My mother, unemployed like so many wives, was left to care both for me and for my infant sister. To keep herself sane during that lonely time, she became involved with the local Squadron Wives Association. Social functions were the SWA's bread and butter, and when it was proposed that a homecoming party be prepared for the sailors and pilots, my mother helped to shoulder some of the burden for fundraising. On one occasion, she volunteered by manning a shift at a bake-sale table, inside one of the squadron hangars out at the airfield. Unfortunately, my mother was unable to find a sitter for that evening, so in order to fulfill both committments, my mother simply threw my baby sister into the car seat, and purchased me a Happy Meal, in a scene I've since come to recognize as typical of nearly all military moms.

I remember walking hand-in-hand with my mother through the hangar, all the while wearing poorly-fitted ear protection. The din had been tremendous, and staring down the length of the hangar I had gawked at the neat line of F/A-18s. The carrier-based strike fighters looked sleek and deadly, even with their wings folded, canopies open, and missile racks empty. I stared as they endured the intrusions of routine maintence like a roost of sleeping steel vultures.

Working through my Chicken McNuggets, I found myself the subject of adoring stares from other wives. Green-shirted crew chiefs shouted and waved down to me from atop the wing panels they were repairing. At five years old, I didn't mind--I liked the attention, and to be honest I was too busy watching the bustle of activity constantly running through the hangar. I remember watching intently as a crew chief stood chatting with a pilot in olive flight coveralls, both of them pointing to various features and noting deficiencies accrued to the plane since the most recent flight.

The pilot, most of all, held a special place in my attention. He was tall, perhaps in his early thirties, with lean features and tapered, sandy-blond hair. His manner was both friendly and professional, but even discounting his rank he seemed to tower over the enlisted personnel in a way that had nothing to do with his height. This one fighter pilot, to me, was the essence of maleness in military culture. He was tall, handsome, athletic; the very personification of the elite warrior. Some part of my developing brain struggled to capture everything possible about this image, perhaps logging it as my earliest conscious example of a male role model.

After a time, the pilot smiled and waved, striding over to the bulkhead against which I now sat. I remember how he squatted down to look at me, grinning as I hugged my Happy Meal box closer in a sudden gesture of shyness.

"Hi there," he said. "What's your name?"

I remember looking up at him, and then over to my mother, who was busy giggling with the other wives.

"Milo," I told him.

"Hi Milo," he said, smiling. "I'm Drew. Nice to meet you." He stuck out his hand, and I accepted it in a tentative handshake. I offered him a french fry. He smiled and silently declined.

"How old are you, Milo?" He looked back at the wives, now staring as much at him as they were at me. I didn't respond, but instead stuck my palm out, fingers splayed, in classic childhood fashion. Looking back to me, his eyes widened, never once losing their warmth.

"Wow, five huh? Almost grown up now."

I nodded. "Yep."

"Got a wife yet?" I shook my head no, nose wrinkling in feigned distaste. He laughed.

"You will someday, I bet." Glancing back at the women, he added. "See? Girls love a handsome guy like you."

"Nah." The laughter was growing audible now. I played it cool as best I could.

"What do you want to be when you grow up," he asked me.

"A pilot," I said, grinning. I noticed the way the man had straightened up with pride just a bit. I paused, then added, "or a paleontologist."

The pilot cocked his head at that. "A paleontologist," he repeated. "What's that?"

"He wants to study dinosaurs," my mother called out from the back.

"Dinosaurs, huh? A paleontologist. That's a pretty big word, isn't it?"

I nodded again. "Yep. I know lots of big words."

"I'll bet you do. You been readin' lots of books?"

"Uh huh."

"Wow." The pilot chuckled as he said this, and shook his head. "How old are you again?"

I splayed the fingers once again. "Five," I told him.

The pilot smiled quietly, and again shook his head in amazement. "Wow. Well, you keep readin' those books, and I'm sure you'll do whatever you want to." After a moment, he stood up. "Well, Milo, it was nice meeting you, but I think I'm gonna wander over here and grab one of these cookies the nice ladies are sellin'. You tell your future wife I said hi, now, ya hear?"

I nodded vigorously, and waved as he turned to go, one long french-fry dangling in my hands like a conductor's wand. "Nice meeting you."

"Yep," he said, waving, "Bye Milo."

"Bye Drew." I stared down into my Happy Meal, reaching in for the last Chicken McNugget. Pulling out, I looked up one last time and shouted, "Hey Drew?"

Drew looked back at me. "Yeah?"

I stuck my thumb up in the air. "No points for second place."

He laughed, along with the other wives, recognizing the then-popular words of Val Kilmer's bleach-blond fighter jock. "Right," he shot back.

"No points for second place."

Looking back on that exchange now, it amazes me just how much of that conversation--indeed, the entire military lifestyle--has shaped the way I've grown up. I grew up idolizing these men, men like my father, who left behind all they knew in order to endure hardship and sacrifice. These men were trained to kill, if necessary, in order to protect mysterious ideas like "freedom," and "democracy." Before I even understood death, I understood that killing and dying for these things was to be commended, regardless of the human cost. Each of the fighter planes that I longed to helm carried enough firepower to obliterate entire city blocks. To a five year old, however,"freedom" is a word more easily identifiable than "collateral damage."

Funny, how simply some concepts come to us as children.


Anonymous Jennifer said...

"All the same, even the very best attempts, the most well-appointed military neighborhoods, still manage to come off vaguely wrong. They reek of the hollow pastel cheer of 1950's suburbia. Looking back, I am reminded of bowls of waxen fruit; still life writ large. They struggle for authenticity, but they never fully shed that sallow, artificial cast."

I've never lived in a military neighborhood, but this description sums up how I feel about the suburb I am currently living in. There are days when I expect the building facades to fall backwards and reveal that it is indeed all smoke and mirrors... I think they think people should find comfort in this conformity, this perfection, but somewhere, deep down, I think most humans can sense it is indeed fake fruit and offers no sustenance.

10:00 PM  

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