I quite like the train actually, especially for a trip like today’s, when I was only doing a touch and go in Point Mugu to pick up a jet and ferry her to Fallon. The time spent traveling was roughly the same, once you’ve deigned to commit yourself to the train’s schedule rather than your own. I made the trip for about the price of a tank of gas, and the frustration factor of rolling through the 405 during rush hour was much reduced, if not entirely abnegated.
The Hobbit dropped me off at the Coaster station in Sorrento Valley, not so very far from where she works. She even introduced me to Gus the conductor, whom of course she knows, as she has had the opportunity not once but severally of using his services while shepherding her special needs charges hither and yon. Your man as much as told me that I was blessed in my choice of a bride, for she was that patient. I know, I responded, for didn’t she marry me?
Take the seaward side my lady said, for the view is all the better. I probably wouldn’t have thought of it on my own, but she had a point. We made our gradual way from Sorrento Valley through Solana Beach, two stops in Carlsbad and then finally to Oceanside, or as I prefer to call it, “Bakersfield-by-the-sea”. The great Marine Corps base of Camp Pendleton lies hard by, and that portion of the town that does not cater to the street wraiths on their skateboards or those aimlessly tossing their dreadlocks about, instead caters to the whims of the hard young men who cycle through the base in unending succession. All of whom come back from distant lands changed in some measure, some more profoundly altered, and some of whom do not come back at all, at least not to Camp Pendleton.
With an hour and a half to kill between the Coaster and Amtrak, I got a nice breakfast and a haircut. I was keenly aware of a hunger in the first part, and a sideways glance at my curling gray locks in storefront windows reminding me of the necessity of the latter. The place I stopped at catered to young Marines, and a lissome lass of some twenty-odd summers was the only one there to serve our needs before 11. A young man on his way to jump school got his high and tight to go with his bulging muscles, and another young Marine – physically sloppier, from some months of forced ease and holding a cane – offered to yield his place to me, keeping in mind the schedule I was on. He wasn’t going anywhere for a while, he said, not unkindly. “Thanks, Marine” I said to him as I left. “Sir,” he replied. I didn’t ask him how he became injured, nor why he called me “sir”. It didn’t really matter.
Rolling surf to my left on the ride north, surfers waiting their wave, living in a different world from those I had just left. Which all gave way in time to hillside passes and outlying neighborhoods, the graffito kinds of places where passing trains are the least of their concerns. In Los Angeles, by some sort of magic known only to the throttle-man, the train somehow managed to back out the way we’d come and still meander its way north. I was picked up at the station in Camarillo, driven to the air station and soon found myself re-united with my own machine.
Unrestricted visibility, and high, thin cirrus clouds at 20,000 feet. Pretty much right there at my minimums. The lead had already filed the flight plan, so it was a trivial thing to get her cranked and moving. The take-off no longer waters my eyes, not the hoarse growl of the afterburner behind me, nor the runway markers flashing by. I have become accustomed to her quirks, even if not entirely enured to them: My left hand nervously fretted at the roll trim for almost the entire flight, with actions required at each power and airspeed adjustment, while my left thumb caressed the pitch trim lever. In yaw, she seemed perfectly at ease throughout the flight.
As was I, once we’d gotten re-acquainted.
In the south, it’s popularly said that time spent fishing doesn’t count against a man’s store of days. If that’s true – and I do not assert it – then it seems to me that time spent flying must count double. There’s no other rational way to pay back that serenity which comes from being back in a jet again, wearing your flight suit, with your wings on your left breast and “the patch” on your left shoulder. These are my siguls, and I worked hard and long to get at both of them. I thought them lost to me for nigh on a decade.
The landing was uneventful, I taxied in and shut her down. Spent a few moments chatting with the maintenance folks, and stopped by the officer’s club on the way back to the motel. The helicopter weapons school was having a farewell for a petty officer who’d left the service, and a lieutenant commander who was heading back to his department head tour. I’ve seen hundreds of such, if not more. Kind words are said by the one in charge, the award citation is read, the man leaving has a moment or so to speak his mind, and the whole thing wraps up with a photograph.
I nursed my beer as this was going on, relieved of the requirement to stand at attention while the Secretary of the Navy’s words were read aloud. I formed no part of the photo-taking exercise at the end. Those involved took their places, and smiled their smiles as the flashbulb illuminated their innocent faces, unaware that there is a time to everything, and to everything a season. I hovered on the fringe like a ghost at a campfire, warmed by the glow, but unilluminated by it, knowing better.
There was a young couple there, a lieutenant with a fresh face and upturned nose, his girlfriend elfin-like and charming. Perhaps he hadn’t promised her a proper share of his glory or excitement, but it probably had been at least tacitly hinted at. As the night wore on, instead she watched with a bored expression as he spoke to the other men there in their Nomex flight suits, speaking fraternal secrets in their arcane language and gesturing with their hands when words alone would not suffice, here in the high desert with sere mountains ringing all around, and not much else.
He seemed oblivious, and I found myself hoping it would work out for them. Against the odds.
It’s a hard road.