I can’t remember if I’ve told this tale before, which means you probably don’t either. But in any case it came to pass one warm summer day in the San Joaquin Valley that an FA-18 squadron commanding officer of my casual acquaintance stood at the podium in his dress whites, sword at his side, opening the event book for to begin his change of command speech, the assembled sailors roasting at parade rest in their own whites, the guests fanning themselves with their programs, for if you’ve never been at a midday speech in Lemoore, California in the summertime, then you’ve never been truly hot, maybe.
Back in the very early days of the FA-18, transition pilots were generally coming from the F-4 and A-7 communities, with a few assorted Tomcat dudes tossed in. The gentleman in question had once flown F-14s, which he never let you forget, as though having once been a simple fighter pilot lent him a certain credence in the eyes of the strike fighter set. Which couldn’t have been farther from the truth for the most of us, whose envy of the aluminum overcast went chiefly unremarked upon. The airplane was fast, it was true, and carried a very great deal of gas. But it was finicky electronically and mechanically, a beast to maintain, and a real brute to bring aboard the ship, especially at night. About the best compliment an FA-18 pilot could give the Tomcat was that it looked pretty in your gunsight, the wings all nicely spread.
The Tomcat community for its part regarded the FA-18 as something of an innovative nuisance, always soaking up the Texico, and they were not entirely sure of the program’s longevity. I’ve a nagging suspicion that when the word came down from On High that a few select F-14 pilots would leave the cool Sandy Eggo environs for to teach those knuckle-dragging Corsair jocks how to fight an airplane rather than merely hurl it at the mud, the Tomcat leadership took the opportunity to shave away some problem chillun.
At least in this fellow’s case, for while he was a competent aviator, he gave the word “abrasive” deeper meaning. If personality were tactile, you could have used his to scour the fleet of rust. As a commanding officer, I am told, he was more feared than respected, and not entirely well-loved, leading as he did through sarcasm and intimidation. We are who we are, and by 40 most of us are pretty fully formed.
He made a habit of stemwinding once he had the bit in his teeth, and loved to share Life Anecdotes so that his officers and men might lead lives more nearly like his own. One inexplicable favorite, often told, was how he insisted on taking his family to supper every Friday evening at a local pizzeria if only for the comfortable routine that was in it. Which I have to admit that it was a good pizzeria for the greater Lemoore/Hanford/Visalia metroplex. But, anyway.
So hizzoner stood head down at the podium in his choker whites, reading from his speech without once raising his eyes to gauge the reception his wisdom received from a broiling, captive audience. Turning from page four to page five of what was intended to be a 30-page speech, he hesitated, choked and turned crimson, flipping rapidly through page after page. Not a stroke, as it turns out, nor a wardrobe malfunction of the close-wrapped uniform collar but rather a stroke of genius: The junior officers who had set up the program book having decided that four pages of his lordship’s horatorical didacticism being sufficient to the day, pages five through 30 had been emended, as it were. And entirely blank.
Having not had the foresight to memorize a 30-page speech – which, by the way, served as an excellent example to your own humble scribe if ever the opportunity to pass his wisdom arose – the CO was forced to mutter and stammer a few closing remarks, read his orders relieving him of command and exchange salutes with his successor. This gesture served to transubstantiate the latter immediately from “Almost” to “Utmost,” leaving the surviving junior officers relatively immune from retaliation, their fitness reports having already been signed.
That being a Friday, the use-to-be commanding officer glumly took his family for pizza, and this is where the devilish ingenuity of the junior naval officer really shines: Having apportioned out slices of pizza each to their respective familial diner, the former CO noted something unusual underlying the pie: Pages 5-30 of what I’m sure would have been really quite a lovely speech for volunteer listeners in an air conditioned room.
It’s the little things, you know. The finishing touches.