Which the new firm has chosen to make me the company’s training officer, and it was thought that my ability to function in that task might be augmented by going through the TOPGUN adversary course, a necessarily abbreviated version of the full-length version intended to provide the adversary instructor with the requisite wherewithal to provide good training to the fleet. Having learned what new things have come about in the last 13 years, I am intended to go forth and preach the gospel according to.
Many years after I graduated from the US Naval Academy, having already become a commissioned officer, I would nevertheless get a bit of a tremor in my legs when the chapel roof hove into view. It was the first and most prominent landmark announcing the nearing eminence of Bancroft Hall, Mother B as it was known to us, the asylum wherein the inmates inflicted all sorts of terrors upon one another, all in the name of God, country and the naval service. Indeed, the first involuntary response to seeing that dome break the skyline would be to check my wristwatch, if only to confirm that I was not late to one or another evolution. Time, tide and formation waiting for no man, they say. Not if it were ever so.
Walking up to the Fleet Training Building today at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center brought a similar echo to my heart. It was, and is, the kind of place that calls for your A game. I didn’t check my watch so much as check my ego at the door. Just like I did every day, thirteen-odd years ago. Two dozen of the Navy and Marine Corps finest fighter and strike fighter pilots used to walk those halls back in the day. They still do, although the names have changed, and they have grown inexplicably more young than I ever was.
Lee Travino once said, that “The older I get, the better I used to be.” Maybe that’s true in the PGA, but it doesn’t take much exposure to the latest generation to hold the flame to realize that maybe I was never all that good.
Some things have changed, of course. The staff get to wear wrist watches now when giving their lectures, which was verboten back in my day. You didn’t want the students attention to drift, wondering whether that was a real Rolex on your arm, or whether it was something you’d picked up for 200 baht in some steamy bazaar in Thailand. Not that anyone would ever do that. And by the way, don’t ever get one wet, is my recommendation to you. Doesn’t matter what it says on the face about “Water Resistant to 33 meters”.
Don’t ask me how I know.
It all started at 0700, which is only a half an hour past oh-dark thirty, for us Navy types (90 minutes past for Our Beloved Corps, and a full two-hours before the national guard and reserves show up, followed by the Air Force). Which was plenty early for your correspondent, that being the earliest he’d shown up for anything since, well: Forever. Or 2003, at least.
The lecture began in the customary TOPGUN way, which is to say it was preceded by rock music played over the classroom speakers at a volume calculated to render intramural discussions with the person to ones left or right well nigh impossible. When the clock had ticked the hour, he gradually faded the music to black, establishing himself as the person in charge of the noise. Stunned nearly to stupefaction, we obediently read his lips as his voice warred with the ringing in our ears. When asked, we gave him ours.
Like any intro brief, the first hour was dedicated to trivia: Here are your textbooks, study these pages, this is where you park, any questions? No. Then on to the meat.
Hizzoner was the 1v1 Air Combat subject matter expert, and he walked us through both offensive and defensive basic fighter maneuvers over the course of four hours. The physics of flight cannot much have changed since 1998, but the descriptions and techniques have evolved. The clever lads who spend their lives attempting reach aerial combat perfection via asymptotic approaches have been busy over the intervening years, and I found myself nodding appreciatively in places, pursing my lips in others, and wishing I could match the guys I used to serve with against their distant replacements in an alumni cage match, because they were stone killers to a man and I’ve never flown against better. And, more than anything else, wishing I was 30 in an FA-18 again, rather than 50 in a Kfir.
But to everything is a time, and to each a purpose.
Walked out to the car to check my cell phone for messages and emails, having left things at home in a less than perfect state of equilibrium. Two young petty officers met me coming the other way, the first – in the best traditions of the naval service – bracing for to salute the aged warrior before her wearing familiar gold wings, but without any visible badge of rank. The second – in the much more customary way – finding something on the distant horizon to rivet his attention, thereby gaining plausible deniability for failure to render what might, or might not have been, customary honors due my rank, or absence thereof. It’s not the first time I’ve been faced with this transparent dodge, and every generation attempts it. But it was the first time I’d truly earned it, as well as the first time I let it slide. I saw the first petty officer at lunch, and she asked me, “Sir, what are you?” I had to reply that I was only a contractor, never to fret, thinking to myself that the truth of it is, I just don’t know. One of those ghosts perhaps that comes out this time of year, hovering between one world and the next.
Over the course of the afternoon we were treated to more rock music, interspersed by four hours of indoctrination about threat missiles of various and divers kinds. About which, I regret to say, not much can here be shared. At all. The instructor was once again sharp, intelligent and well-prepared. The students were, well: Students. From various parts of the warfare center for the most part. Some were exceptional, some average. Some seemed put upon to be there. Pearls before swine, and so on.
We got out at 1630, and I went to celebrate Halloween at the O’Club, dressed as a fighter pilot.
Bad idea, it had already been done.