Tedium my friends, is the end of human decency, and there was a fair bit of tedium to be found on the line during the Cold War. We’d sail around the world, ever ready for any contingency but quite unwilling to offend anyone, tip-toeing around off shore, always careful not to kick the can over on that whole global, thermonuclear war thing. Because of the nuclear winter that was in it.
What joy there was for a strike fighter pilot in the late 80′s consisted of deeds of epic personal heroism in port during all-too-rare quality of life visits – the kind of things you didn’t write home about – and the very unlikely chance that your battle group might be called up for one of those very occasional, but classically Navy, drive-by shootings.
Bones was a lieutenant junior grade on my second such deployment, and the only nugget to join the squadron in the year-long turnaround between two cruises. Most new guys in the fleet have the common sense to lay low for a bit and let their flying do the talking, but Bones – so called because apart from skin, a prominent Adam’s apple and a yet more prominent pair of protruding eyes, there wasn’t much else to him – decided that the only thing to do upon joining our august ranks was to attempt to announce his presence with authoritay, chiefly on the basis of a whole lot of Cessna time he had gotten in high school.
Cessna time or no, being a brand new guy in the only flying business that actually counted, this didn’t go over so very well with the in-house mafia known in carrier squadrons as the Junior Officer Protective Association, or JOPA. Which continual moral pounding by his peers ought to have been bad enough, but he also contrived, being assigned the duties of squadron schedules officer, to place himself one day on a solo IR – Instrument Route – over the lush valleys of northern coastal California.
There were two kinds of navigation routes we flew, the IR and the VR, or visual route. Of the two the IR was much the more sedate, as it occurred in relatively medium altitude blocks at relatively low speeds – say 5000-8000 feet and 350 knots. The IR was designed such that it could be flown even in inclement weather, without fear of hitting something immovable, like the granite face of a canyon wall, just for example. The altitude blocks were “hard,” which is to say that if you exited from either the top or the bottom of the airspace, well, then you were no longer on an approved route. I guess the point of them was to navigate by visual and radar checkpoints, but having little application in a tactical environment they weren’t much more than medium altitude sight-seeing trips.
The VR route was what we called a true “low level,” and the minimum altitudes were usually restricted – over uninhabited terrain – to 200 feet above ground level (AGL), while airspeed was only limited to subsonic. These were a whole lot more fun of course, chiefly because of the very real possibility that you could die, and that right quick – zorching down low at high speed and high g, navigating by the nap of the earth, flipping her around mountain tops, etc. But they were also only flown when the weather was pretty damn near perfect, because otherwise you stood a better than even chance of tying the low altitude record, and who needed that kind of stress?
So anyway, off Bones went on his solo IR route, and half way through it he decided that it wasn’t nearly as much fun as a VR route, which in any case he would never have been allowed to fly solo as a new guy because those of us left behind wouldn’t know where to start our search for the wreckage. The weather being fine, he took it upon himself to cancel his instrument clearance and fly the rest of the route at 500 feet AGL and 400 knots, that being thought – by Bones – to be a good compromise. Now, being clever readers, you are probably thinking that such a notion sounds too good to be true.
As indeed it was.
Were the wine country denizens, accustomed as they were to a life of serene privilege, astonished to find an FA-18 ripping over their heads at 500 feet and 400 knots, where never one had been seen before? They were.
Was the control tower at Santa Rosa airport, in Sonoma county, accustomed to the positive control of aircraft within its airspace, surprised to see an FA-18 with whom they had not spoken squawking a VFR code and flying across their runways at an angle – those runways then being occupied with conforming traffic – at 500 feet and 400 knots? Oh yes, very.
Were each set of observers so absorbed by this phenomenon so as to make probing inquiries of the only Navy FA-18 base in the local area? Yes, and in fact those queries soon found their way into our very own ready room, where it was determined that we indeed had an FA-18 in the general vicinity of Santa Rosa, but that there must be some sort of mistake – the floor on the IR-201 over Santa Rosa was 5000 feet. Perhaps that was what they had seen?
No – it could not have been, and by the time Bones returned from his flight, stowed his gear and walked jauntily up to the ready room to report on his adventure, we already had a pretty good idea what had happened. And in this case, the term “we” had been so enlarged as to include the squadron CO – we had to tell him, he would have found out in any case – and who was very excited to speak with Bones on the topic of his flight. Practically dancing.
It was a brief but fascinating conversation, so long as your definition of “conversation” is expansive enough to include an apoplectic 40-year old commander shouting spittle-flecked imprecations at an astonished and speechless 24-year old lieutenant junior grade in front of an odd assortment of other lieutenants and lieutenant commanders, all of them listening in with carefully averted eyes and evident schadenfreude, fully aware that the fourth law of thermodynamics had been invoked for the foreseeable future and that, so long as we left the CO’s actual daughters alone, we were pretty much off the hook for everything.
The only reason that Bones didn’t join the Excellent and Venerable League of Former Navy Fliers at this point was because he was in fact so very new that malice could not be positively determined.
You: But what has this to do with tedium and being on the line during the Cold War?
Me: Which I was just getting to that.
How very like a god is man perhaps, because even FA-18 pilots could get bored of floating in the middle of the great nothingness for months on end, doing nothing in particular except for bombing maritime smoke flares with 25-pound practice bombs and 1v1 air intercepts at max conserve airspeed. Bones had toughened up a bit and learned a lot on cruise, but he was still the new kid and lacked a certain degree of deference to his betters. We often sought out innovative ways to get our message through to him, like the time the ship was locked down in a Security Alert.
In the old days we used to sail with a company of Marines on board the carrier, big, brawny men with rifles in their arms, sneers on their lips and an ever-present case of dyspepsia as they cursed their fate of being surrounded by squids. It didn’t matter if you were a lieutenant junior grade or the air wing commander himself, for if you were found out and about the ship’s passageways during a Security Alert, it would be: Get your face on the deck, spread your arms and legs and a rifle placed at your back and there was nothing much to be done for it until Someone in Authority could be found to vouch for you. The only authority figures those guys recognized were the ship’s captain, whose life they guarded, and the Marine captain who commanded their company, neither of whom could be reliably counted upon to materialize in your moment of necessity and save your bacon – the Marines didn’t play.
Their berthing was cheek-by-jowl to our ready room, and when the Security Alert was sounded on the 1MC, you only had a moment or two before there was shouting in the passageway, the sound of combat boots hitting the deck and burly men with rifles everywhere. It was the responsibility of the Duty Officer to hurl himself at our ready room door and lock the thing as soon as possible once the alert sounded, for if he did not the likelihood of having a group of armed Marines burst in and put us all face-down upon the deck was non-trivial.
Bones was the SDO one day while the rest of us sat around reading our Victoria’s Secret catalogues when the Security Alert sounded. He had been distracted by something on the ship’s TV and did not instantly leap to his duty, for which failure he was loudly and roundly remonstrated by the rest of the assembled JOPA. With the sound of approaching boots and shouts building next door, he chose that moment to grow a pair, telling us all that if we wanted the door locked so much, well then, we could go ahead and lock it ourselves.
This latest bit of impertinence could not, of course, be borne and we replied to Bones that he might very well tell it to the Marines, only this time we meant it. Bodily we bundled him up, physically we moved him to the door, and even as the cries and commotion increased in the passageway, joyfully did we hurl him out into the maelstrom, quickly locking the door behind him and bracing it with our shoulders.
Shouting and barking and “GET ON YOUR FACE, GET ON YOUR FACE!!!” did we hear and there was much eye-rolling and knee-slapping and antic gestures for a time until we heard a new voice of quiet authority in the passageway, that of the captain of Marines as it turned out. One of his Marines replied to his query, saying to him, “Sir, his own guys threw him out to us,” and hearing it put that way we momentarily felt a little remorseful. At having been caught.
Then there came a knock on the ready room door, and just like the three little pigs we spoke into the door jamb, asking, “Who is it?”
“Captain McDonough of the Marine Detachment,” came the reply, and “open the hatch.”
“We will not,” said we and braced our shoulders yet more firmly against the door, “for if we do, you will hurl us all to the deck and put rifles in our backs and we thank you sir, but we need none.”
“Open the hatch and let your man in, for we have work to do and my Marines will not molest you,” said he.
“On your honor,” we asked, “as an officer of Marines?”
“Yes, for God’s sake, open the hatch,” he replied, clearly growing exasperated.
And so we, seeing nothing more to be gained by further delay, opened the hatch and they left us alone and returned to us the person of one Bones, junior FA-18 pilot extraordinaire, only very slightly worse for the wear. So little the worse for wear in fact, that his impudence tended rather to increase than otherwise.
But this only enlightened our dreary and monastic lives for a matter of weeks, and soon the tedium set in again. Fortuitously the month of Bones’ flight physical was soon upon us, and the flight surgeon himself was recruited to play a critical role in our diabolical plot to make this birthday one to remember for our own dear JG.
Now you have read in these pages, gentle reader, the sore tribulations that can attend to an annual flight physical, especially when it is perpetrated by a man-hating ogre who will not even deign to give you wipies when she’s done. The difference between that and what you are about to read was intent, because while she was working her way through some issues that bedeviled the nether regions of her unilluminated psyche, we were just having a bit of fun while doing the necessary.
So it came to pass that when Bones was stretched out with his elbows on the table and his trou upon the deck, the jellied glove having been snapped in place out of his view and put to its intended purpose. At this point, the flight surgeon – a good man, though flawed perhaps in retrospect – placed his left hand upon Bones’ left shoulder. And at that moment of intense moral disadvantage, the assisting hospital corpsman, whose presence in the room Bones did not suspect, having heretofore hidden himself behind the examination curtain, reached through the curtain to place his right hand upon Bones’ other shoulder.
Now Bones’ was not a humble man as we have shown, nor was he much given over to the sin of introspection. He was nobody’s fool however, and could count with the best of them: He quickly realized that between the hands on either shoulder and the unaccustomed – dare I say, unwelcome? – intrusion abaft the beam that something was very much amiss.
He spun around so quickly, the flight surgeon later reported to us – we had asked for video, but had been told that would be a violation of client/patient privilege – that he had nearly broken the doctor’s wrist. He had been a good sport about the whole thing afterwards however, even allowing the examination to be completed. Which I suppose is making a virtue of necessity if you want to stay on flight status, but anyways.
Tedium, as I said at the beginning: It is quite the end of human decency.
And as for Bones? I cannot say that he ever quite grew out of his own self-regard, but he came at last to grow into it.