13 May 2007


The mind is a funny thing sometimes. During a recent (long) layover at a major metropolitan airport your humble scribe was gazing out a window, as he is wont to do from time to time, and watched the ground crew prepping yet another jet for its journeys over the horizon. His attention was drawn to one pair of maintenance personnel in particular. Now you should know that while he holds a fondness and warm spot in his heart for all sailors, it was the aviation maintenance folks - the wrench turners, box swappers and chock-draggers that held a special place in his heart, for they were (are) the ones that made it all happen. And so it was while watching this pair, one a grizzled vet – the other a young nugget that his mind began to wander.

It has been a few years now since he has worn the uniform in service to his country, but the mind – ah yes, the ever surprising mind, brought memories back like it was just yesterday - a long look back so to speak. And so herewith, are his poor scribblings of the rich tapestry of memory presented for your enjoyment…

“Unbelievable – this is finally it” he thought.

Standing on the tarmac at NAS Pensacola, the young Ensign drank in the sights and sounds, smells and action of the flight line outside the VT-10 hangar. In the pre-dawn light the rows of T-2C Buckeyes stood in purplish shadow, the orange of their wings and tails discernable, some with canopies already open in anticipation of the day’s events. In the distance a diesel generator started up and power applied to an aircraft, its navigation lights blinking to life. A gentle breeze brought the mixed scent of JP, diesel and fresh cut grass across the ramp. Almost like a certain day at a Nebraskan airfield in what now seemed the far distant past.

The road taken to this point had been hard fought with obstacles to surmount and dues to be paid along the way. The winnowing process had begun at college – his freshman class at The Citadel had started out with 647 eager “knobs” that humid August morning, four years ago. By graduation just a bit over two months ago, it had been whittled down to 242. Many hadn’t hacked the 4th class system and failed to return from that first Thanksgiving break freshman year. Others had fallen by the wayside academically or had been dismissed because of honor code violations. In his own company, there were a couple of Iranian Navy cadets, recalled to Iran to who knew what fate awaited them in a country that seemed to be rapidly heading to hell in a hand basket. During Aviation Indoc, the sadists over at NAMI had claimed some more – those deemed Not Physically Qualified for flying after their poking, prodding and prying eyes had set upon them. Here, the eternal enmity between aviator and medical personnel was established, the one existing for the health and well being of the other, but regarded with deep suspicion by the former. More fell by the wayside in classrooms as they struggled with aerodynamics or navigation problems. The winnowing continued in the training squadron – those that failed their closed book exams or emergency procedures or simulator rides.

But all that was behind him – he’d passed through the gate and was in the next inner courtyard, ready for his first flight as a student NFO…

“Hey Ensign, let’s get moving – there’s a flight schedule to keep you know…” his Instructor Pilot tossed over his shoulder on the way out to the plane.

Stopping outside the ancient hangar in the cold winter air he pauses to look around at his surroundings. Across the way, a big twin engine turboprop began its start sequence with first one, then a second engine roaring to life. He’d made it. Again, another winnowing process met and successfully passed and a little further into the inner courts. So many had fallen alongside the roadway. Airsickness, an inability to think fast and speak on the radios, family issues – they all had taken their toll. He’d had some great instructors and others that were sheer terrors who reveled in their notoriety. He’d survived a bird strike on a low level (got an automatic “Above” on the grade sheet for his comment to the pilot when both had ducked below the glare shield and he looked at the pilot saying “who’s flying this thing?”) and an overstressed T-2C following a SAM break demonstration. The BFM syllabus was a blast as he had gone against a fellow student who had become a fast friend and the engagements each ended in a draw. Instrument work was OK and he was headed for fighters when one day a strange aircraft dropped out of the overhead onto the tarmac at Pensacola, offering orientation flights for those interested. Of course, being the flight hour hound he was, he made haste to schedule a flight in this oddity called a Hawkeye. It had been a revelation. True, there’d be no yanking and banking, but it quickly became apparent to the young Ensign that this was truly an NFOs plane and from what he saw, the ability to be deeply engaged in all the missions of carrier battle group operations would be there for the offering. His class standing was such that he could be assured of going where he wanted and, not without some puzzled headshaking in the front office, he chose Hawkeyes. And so here he was, NAS Norfolk, home of RVAW-120 the E-2C replacement training squadron and ready to take on the world. Grinning to himself, he entered the hangar, seeking out the SDO to check in and begin the new adventure.

Fingering, as if in disbelief, the golden wings that adorned his otherwise naked left shirt breast, he marveled at both his progress to date and grew increasingly aware of one of the tenants of adulthood – that no matter the progress one made in achieving one level, there were more heights to be scaled, expectations to be met – seniors to convince. Even now, having accomplished the dream he had held for so many years, he was keenly conscious of the fact that now the pressure was ratcheting up – for that coming Monday they began the grueling tactics phase of training. There would be tough battle problems to be met (looking back later, much later, he would laugh at their agonizing simplicity) and the penultimate rite of passage – the NATOPS evaluation. The first was always the toughest – open- and closed book exams, oral exams and a flight evaluation, all geared to plumb the very depths of his knowledge of his fleet aircraft. His fleet aircraft. That had a nice ring to it. Squadron assignments were still weeks away, but already he’d heard he was headed for the Bluetails of VAW-121 who were flying the newest variant of the Hawkeye, equipped with the APS-125 Advanced Radar Processing System. The thought of what awaited brought a smile to his face and a quickening to his heart. Each day, one step closer to the real Navy – the deploying Navy out over the horizon, and all the adventures that portended.

“Skipper – it’s time Skipper” his Command Master Chief gently prodded him. Another in a long line of CMCs whose outstanding leadership and personnel skills he had been fortunate to have been associated with over the years, he glanced up to see understanding in his eyes. Sighing softly he pulled himself out of his reverie. Moving to the mirror in his office he checked himself once more – medals straight, sword properly mounted and cover squared away.

“Seventeen years” he thought “Seventeen years of flying this plane, of friends made and shipmates lost” Images and memories flashed in rapid sequence through his mind. First flight, first trap, qualification as CICO, months spent in the IO off Iran, operations in the cold North Atlantic, special missions that he’d never be able to talk about and hours of sheer boredom drilling holes in eastern Pacific waiting for smugglers. Of storm tossed decks and field traps on icy runways. Of deployments and saying goodbye to first his wife, then his children – one, two sons and now a daughter. Of dreams conceived and disappointments. “Sorry, not this year…” to “Congratulations Skipper – you’re going to be CO of the Steeljaws” to “Skipper, the good news is your command tour is going to be longer than most, the bad news, you’re also going to be the last Steeljaw CO.” And so here he was today, passing through another gate – headed off to new career challenges as navigator on his first carrier, the Eisenhower, but before that happened, he had to stand down the squadron, one of the original 4 squadrons created back in 1967. And it was breaking his heart.

“Skipper – the rest of the official party is arriving, time to go”

“Well Gator, what do you think? Ready to turn over the watch?” It was the last arrival in Norfolk, a clear, cold February day – the kind of day that from the bridge of one of the mightiest warships to have sailed the seas, one could see forever. Except for just now. It had been a hard two years, joining a ship in the yards is always difficult – doubly so when the one you are relieving has been pulled off to fill the need on another ship and the yard period shortened. Manning had been a major fight with the Bureau and with a high turnover rate; he had set to sea with a very green bridge crew. On the plus side was a CO who put teeth in the “train as you fight” mantra and had rapidly grown to trust his judgment and leadership on the bridge. There’d been plenty of shocks to the system along the way (he recalled with a faint smile one particular event involving lobster traps and fog) and was fond of saying that he’d probably shaved a half-dozen years off his life expectancy – a phrase that now brought half-hidden smiles to the bridge watch teams. In all likelihood this would probably be the last time he’d stand on the deck of a warship in a leadership role and he found himself saddened by the prospect. The post-cold war drawdown had substantially narrowed the possibilities for deep draft in his year group – no bitter remonstrance, just a fact of life. Looking around the bridge one last time, he smiled at the new ‘gator and said it was all his now and headed to the quarterdeck to leave the ship. Meeting the Officer of the Deck, one last time he stood at attention and announced that he had permission to leave the ship. The OOD returned the salute with a “Godspeed Gator” and after saluting the flag aft he headed down the brow…

A bell rang out behind him; “Navigator, departing”

Must be the cold, he thought, as he blinked to clear his eyes…

“Twenty-six years and here I stand on another threshold” he thought. The things he’d seen and done. From the ends of the earth to the offices of the power elites in Washington. Intel and policy, strategy and doctrine. He’d seen it being made and had a hand in the process. He wasn’t always happy at how it had turned out on occasion and lately had been pretty concerned about directions the Service and country were headed. He’d also suffered grievously – whether it was in the wake of the terrorist strike where he lost so many friends and shipmates in the shattered Navy Command Center (including almost all of one of his branches) or the subsequent crippling pain and physical disability of a back where suddenly things were going wrong – badly wrong. Twenty-six years – from the bright optimism and promise of a newly commissioned Ensign standing on the tarmac at Pensacola to an older, presumably wiser and more sanguine Captain standing in the theater of the Navy Memorial. “What a journey it was” he thought. Looking across the faces of family, friends and shipmates – some new, some of old, he steeled himself for the final ceremony, the last speech, the final walk through the side boys.

“Captain – it’s time, are you ready sir?” Looking down to the master of ceremonies and his latest partner in crime from the JACO office he gave a barely perceptible nod to commence the ceremonies.

“Yep” he said “Let’s do it” And like so many times before, stepped across the threshold to new adventures, to face new trials and experiences.