I can’t remember if I’ve told this story or not. Which probably means that you can’t either.
Military aviators typically have radio “callsigns,” or handles. Much like a CB radio enthusiast might, with the difference being that they are generally chosen for the nugget pilot rather than by him. We have very few pilots nicknamed “Ace,” for example, and if you find one named “Maverick,” you can be fairly confident that there is what passes for an elevated degree of sarcasm in there somewhere. Believe it or not, joining the fleet and getting your callsign can involve a fair amount of stress – once a moniker gets hung on you, it’s yours for life. Unless you commit some act of egregious buffoonery, landing with the gear up for example, which will be simply too juicy an event not to remind you of for the rest of your professional life, “Wheels.” And it’s worse than useless to object to the handle you’re given, since any evident chink in a fighter pilot’s psychological armor must of necessity be poked and prodded until the blood ceases to run. Never let ‘em see you sweat.
No slack in fighter attack.
Many callsigns are chosen to go along with people’s names, and some can get quite imaginative. I was reading an article in the Taihook magazine a few months back, and chanced across an article written about one of my old squadrons. Some kid had won Top Hook honors for carrier landing performance. As is customary, there was a happy snap with his name and callsign on it: Greek kid I imagine, maybe from one of the old neighborhoods. Last name of Derespinas. Call sign, “Enya.”
It took me a moment (color me slow, if it suits you). I first thought of the Irish new age musician, Enya. And then I put the two together. Enya Derespinas. Say it out loud.
So yeah, I laughed aloud at that, and one of my daughters asked me what I found so funny. And as you can imagine, I had to think pretty fast to come up with a plausible answer.
I mean, of course it’s (mildly) funny in and of itself, but what I really like about what that particular gem illustrates is the tenderly malicious effort that goes into a callsign like that. Here’s a kid, joins the Navy, goes through flight school, gets fighters and is happy as a clam – he’s in the fleet! And when he gets there, the 12 or so JO’s, men he will come to love as brothers, will take the name he was born with and twist it into an abomination. Don’t care what you say, that’s true love.
And speaking of true love, another guy I knew checked into his new squadron, and had a late flight on the evening of his welcome aboard. His wife got to the party before him therefore, and stood looking out the bay window for her soul-mate’s eventual arrival. When he finally walked up the path, she stood there with a few of the junior officers, and with a Nancy Reagan-like look of admiration on her beaming face, said to the room in general, “There he is! Isn’t he precious?”
Yes, the gathering concurred. Yes he is, “Precious.”
Imagine now, two or three years later, calling up a USAF squadron to arrange a dissimilar fight. “Hi this is ‘Precious,’ from VFA-22 to pass you the special instructions.”
“Wait… what? Please say that again, I’m putting you on speakerphone!”
My own story is a little more mundane. I had gone through a couple of training command callsigns, inlcuding “Frenchy” (it’s a last name thing) and “Latch” (I had a door blow off in an A-4 during a formation hop). When I got to the fleet replacement squadron, where you first train in your fleet aircraft before joining a line squadron, I was called “Cajun.” That migrated for a time to “Cujo,” for an event in a bar in Fallon, Nevada that I will not share with you as it does not reflect particularly credibly on your humble scribe, and in any case happened a long time ago when I was a very different person.
I joined VFA-25, “the Fist of the Fleet,” in the summer of 1987, when that squadron was already embarked and half-way through a six month deployment. The squadron already had a “Cajun,” and “Cujo” was considered too macho for a nugget aviator, especially when he is unwilling to relate exactly how and under what circumstances he came to carry it. So my callsign pended some revelation into my character and abilities yet to be demonstrated.
Two days aboard and I’m still fairly jet lagged from the trip from California to the North Arabian Sea. We had a no-fly day, and an early morning meeting scheduled, at which we were expected to “khaki up,” in other words, shed the green flight suits that in time will become as familiar and comfortable to us as our own skins. I’m rigging my khakis, and since I’m new in the squadron I don’t yet have a squadron nametag with the appropriate logo on it. Which should have been only slightly problematical, but my personal mnemonic for putting my uniform together was to “put on my right name,” in other words, the name tag goes on the right breast, with wings and ribbons on the left.
Being tired, I put my uniform together looking in the mirror, where it looked just right. I headed on down to the squadron ready room with five minutes to spare (and a smile on my face!) only to be accosted immediately by the squadron commander: “What, are you dyslexic or something?”
“Your wings are on the wrong side of your uniform!”
So that got abbreviated to “Lex” ultimately, and thankfully has never changed since. I felt relieved actually, the callsign running second in the competition was “Fifi.”