Two notable things happened in 1988: Bomber jackets came back in style, and “Top Gun” hit HBO. Suddenly, I had a “thing” for distressed brown leather and men in uniform. My 13-year-old mind hatched a plan: Go to college, join the Air Force.
What, you laugh? Let me tell you, I know a few female fighter pilots, and they’re smart. Tough. Brave. They’re also very good shots. This is no laughing matter.
Plus, F-16s are sexy.
Somewhere along the way, I learned that 5’ 2” isn’t tall enough to fly. I also learned I’d need to somehow develop a keen mathematical sensibility, good vision and the courage to go to war. I took inventory, and realizing I had none of the requirements, gave up the yoke and grounded myself.
Every year, my brother asks if my guys and I would like to go to the Dayton Air Show. And every year, we say yes. That’s not just because I want to see my F-16s in action. It’s mostly because, love or hate this war, it’s nice to stand in support of those who have fought—and still fight—for this country.
It’s 4:00 on Sunday. The Blue Angels have just finished their demo, and I’m preparing to board this:
Captain George Chapman is telling my nine fellow passengers and me not to act like idiots.
“HERE is your SEATbelt,” he says. “You’ll push these two ends together ‘til they CLICK. If you don’t think you can DO that, DON’T get on the Huey.”
We nod like top-secret, government-funded robots.
“If you’ve got JEWELRY, ladies, TUCK IT IN or you’ll get real beat up. This is a ‘copter, for Chrissakes.” He looks at my feet. “And YOU, Flip Flops,” he says. “When you’re SEATed in your SEAT, plant your FEET on the ground. Lift your feet? Those shoes will fly right out the sides of that thing.”
I nod. Sir, yes sir.
He looks at the rest of the group. “Now I need four adult volunteers to sit in the hot seats and make sure these children don’t fly out, either.” A little girl grabs her father’s leg, and Capt. Chapman’s face softens. “I’m just jokin’, kitten,” he says. “We’ll make sure nothing happens to you.” He clears his throat. “Volunteers?”
Six of us raise our hands.
“Well now I have too many. I pick you and you and you.” He eyes the rest of us again and stops in front of a 60-ish year old man in worn, stained, Vietnam-era fatigues. His name tag says “Bohnd.”
Captain Chapman says, “I’ll pick you, brother. You deserve it.” He offers Bohnd his hand and shakes it. “Welcome home.”
I take my seat behind the pilot. My back is to the cockpit, and when I finally look around, I end up staring into the eyes of the little girl. She smiles at me as her dad hands me his camera. “Can I trouble you?” he asks. They put their heads together and say “cheese.”
And then the main rotor clicks on. The blades cut the air and we begin to rise, with the doors of the Huey wide open.
How do you write about exhilaration? Maybe I don’t know how. Or maybe this kind of happiness simply can’t be described.
The Huey tips and I can see flat ground. The trees are fleshy and bountiful; the world is gray and green. I’m aware of every jagged breath. That crawling, prickly sense of jubilation. The salty sting of tears. For a moment, I forget I’m taking pictures, clicking the shutter without a thought. I feel motionless. Like a butterfly hanging from a string.
I lean a bit to the left and improve my view as the girl’s dad shouts this at me: “They’re actually PAID to do this! It doesn’t seem fair!”
Then he laughs wildly, like a little boy caught in the wind.
As the Huey descends, my fellow passengers congratulate themselves. The dad hugs his daughter. Another dad fist-bumps his son. Everyone is smiling, except for Bohnd.
He’s holding his dog tags, rubbing them slowly between his thumb and index finger. He’s not looking at the ground like the rest of us. He’s looking up. Up.
Here I am in a Huey. On a whim. It’s a quick thrill. A joy ride. A “First” to blog about later. But for Bohnd, it’s something entirely different. It’s the reenactment of a memory.
Suddenly, I feel silly. I think about my girlish pipe-dreams of hitting mach-speed in an F/A-18 Hornet. Back then, I didn’t think about sacrifice or taking aim or risking anything at all. I thought about dress blues and protocol. Care packages from home.
We civilians are just so far removed. It’s almost astounding how far removed we are. In that moment, I want to reach out–like Captain Chapman–to shake the hand of every American soldier that ever was–and is. To thank their loved ones for their sacrifices, too. And to pray for a safe journey home.
Before we boarded the Huey, Bohnd’s daughter pulled out her camcorder and prompted him to speak. “This doesn’t feel right,” he said. “Where’s my M-16? Where’s my Captain?” He laughed about it then.
Now he covers the lens with his hands.
“Shut off the camera, Kathryn,” he says gruffly. “Just shut it off. I don’t want to talk anymore.”
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