Training Air Wing Five puts on a pretty damned good show, when it comes to a winging. We drove up what ought to have been a familiar track from the northern Pensacola suburbs to NAS Whiting Field in Milton, Florida, apart from the fact that even here progress has left its mark. If by progress your definition is broad enough to include strip malls, gas stations and traffic lights where once there had run a country road. Things move on.
The traffic was sufficiently dense that we arrived just too late to join the wingers at the chapel for a blessing of the wings, and if such an option had been presented to us at Meridian in April of 1985, I must have missed it. We thus had an extra hour or so prior to the winging itself to occupy ourselves, and we did so by going over to the helo airport to see what was making there. Our young man showed us the centennial TH-57C, opened the cabin door and gave a pretty thorough briefing as to the controls and quirks of helicopter flying. He spoke with professional pride, and it was a strange but joyful experience to be the student now of a man who had mostly been my pupil through the years. Thorough and professional though it might have been, I am not yet prepared to take that leap of faith which comes with understanding how such a contraption reliably breaks ground, and almost as reliably returns to it. With his 200-odd hours of instruction he can do something in the aviation world that I – with nearly 5,000 hours and three decades of aerial experience – cannot. I am content with that.
With a few minutes left to spare before the winging, he graciously drove us over to my old stomping grounds at Training Squadron Three. The T-34Cs in which I apprenticed are gone, replaced by the T-6A Texan II, but the squadron spaces had not changed much. The walk from the squadron to the operations shack seemed shorter than I remembered it, back in the day. Perhaps trepidation made the journey longer then than retrospection does today.
It’s been a long road for him, and hard in places. He got to flight training just in time for some wrenching reductions in the force, most of which was imposed upon the backs of his ground school cohort, requiring the kind of academic achievement that, had it been in place in 1983, would have almost certainly left the retired rolls short of one Navy captain of my very close acquaintance. A wrestling match with a high school friend left him with an injury that required delicate surgery to repair. Getting back into an “up” medical status after that surgery came with complications, and called for careful navigation of the hallways and byways of the Naval Aeromedical Institute, whose sole charter it appears is to find plausible reasons to medically disqualify aspiring aviators. We were blessed to count among our distant and unmet friends an occasional reader and his lovely bride who understood the rocks and shoals of that institute intimately, and who helped SNO stay confidently within the fairway. Thanks, Dan.
In the auditorium, a young Marine major and even younger Navy lieutenant marched to the stage from opposite sides, each dressed in their service dress uniforms. They marched towards each other with practiced precision, front-faced towards the impressed audience – at least I was impressed – and launched into a well-rehearsed script to tell us that while what we were about to witness was Kind of a Big Deal, it was also meant to be a joyful and light-hearted celebration of professional accomplishment.
The wing commodore was a genial young (!) captain and he gave a very nice speech which he assured us self-effacingly but accurately we would not much remember. And then the winging ceremonies began.
Each young officer was escorted by his friends and families to the stage, where one among them was designated to emplace the Wings of Gold, and the others to stand witness. The fact that your host is a retired naval officer had not escaped the careful eye of those responsible for the preparations of the ceremony, and my former rank was announced along with my name. I heard that but distantly, and then the sound went away, for this moment wasn’t really about me and anyway I was too full of pride in my son for my other senses to fully operate. When I turned to face him I was handed a pair of wings, which I attempted to surreptitiously pocket in my right trouser pocket, pulling from the left a more worn pair, made of actual gold, given me by my beloved and departed sister 26 years, six months and 16 days previously. Which I wasn’t using them.
My attempted sleight of hand was noticed however. Someone asked if they had been mine, and I nodded in assent. The exchange of legacies was then announced more generally. They looked good on the young man, I shook his hand and then embraced him, holding hard for a moment. We walked down the receiving line, where I thanked his commanding officer for training my son. The Hobbit was, as she is wont to be, overcome a bit by emotion. Not me, at least not until we regained our seats. Sitting next to my son, I glanced over at him there in his full dress whites, tall and fine and wearing wings. And although I had thought myself beyond such things I was moved nearly to tears. It was that close. Didn’t want to embarrass him.
Warfare qualified now, he moves next month to Norfolk, Virginia to become type, model and series qualified in the MH-60S. Following which he’s off to Guam for the next three years.
Things move on.