What’s Your (call) Sign?

Lex had friends far and wide. I got an email the other day from a USNA classmate, and squadron mate from his first fleet assignment. If we’re real nice to Gurns, we might get a few more sea stories outta him. – XBradTC

Sea Stories

In Re: Callsigns

Guest post by Gurns

A common query from those not familiar with the ways of military aviation in general, and Naval Aviation in particular is “What’s with the nicknames?”, or from those slightly more in the know “How’d you get your callsign?” Anyone who’s watched Animal House has at least casual understanding of the ritual of branding one’s cohorts in an exclusive, if somewhat rowdy club with labels unique to the club and its members—

Bluto: “Your Delta Tau Chi name is, ‘Pinto’”

Larry: “Why?”

Bluto: “Why not?!”

Sometimes the act is, indeed, arbitrary. But in other cases, great (or at least passing) thought is given to the assignment. Callsigns may attach during an SNA’s time in flight training, quite common in the jet community, or in the RAG (FRS)—but those are considered provisional. One’s first Fleet Squadron reserves the right to assign a callsign at the sole discretion of the aviators there assembled, usually by simple majority vote. While an individual may have grand dreams of a macho moniker, it is never up to the individual to proffer his own choice, or at least to appear to be stating a preference as to what he wishes to be called. Woe betides the young winged one who announces to the Ready Room “They call me ‘Shark’.” “Sit down, Minnow” will come the chorus, and it’ll stick—ouch. Sometimes the selection is obvious, the hands are tied. Such is the case with many that are name-based, like Laz.  Last name Campbell? It’s ‘Noodle’ or ‘Soup’ for you. Come from the lineage of Bright or Swift? Too easy, Notso, give me something hard. Other variations on the name-based theme—have an unusual last name? DeBoodt, say? “Booter” has a nice ring to it. Have an excruciatingly long string of letters, arranged in a way no one’s going to remember how to spell? Kyrsigator ? We’ll call you “K-9”. Sounds fearsome when spoken, and at least reminds us how many letters to include, if not necessarily in what order, when putting your name on the flight schedule.

Another aid in determining how to refer to a new brother is assessing any peculiar distinctive characteristics associated with the subject. Is there, perhaps, an exquisitely-shaped dome, which only detraction involves the failure of follicles to produce in abundance as more common among your peers? A sort of “bullethead”, as it were? Of course, “Bullethead”, having three syllables, will never satisfy TOPGUN requirements for comm brevity on the radio. And we don’t want the mild humiliation to be that obvious to the civilians, so we’ll shorten that to ‘Bullet’. There’s a manly handle (sorry Admiral). Suppose your Louisiana accent and mannerisms are so strong as to overwhelm any other first, or lasting, impression anyone may discern while in your company. That’d be ‘Cajun’, then. Then there’s the combo platter—name and physical characteristics. Who hasn’t heard of Shortney?

Now there occur in many instances situations which do not lend themselves to immediate and obvious guidance on how to achieve the perfect label. In these cases, some length of observation is required to allow the image to form from the unmolded clay. In the author’s first squadron, there were more than a few subjects requiring such protracted thought. It took months of Audubon-like monitoring of one young LT after his arrival. Watching his behavior in briefs, debriefs, social settings, on duty, in the Ready Room, on liberty it was, at length, noted that his countenance seldom provided any indication as to his mood or reaction to any stimuli that may impinge upon his person. Criticism, adulation, comedy, tragedy—none of these ever seemed betrayed by his expression. His face, it was as stone. “Stone” was thusly affixed to his nametag. He offered no perceptible indication as to his opinion of the matter, but when he told his young wife upon return to the house that evening she exclaimed “Exactly! That’s perfect!” and raved her approval to any and all among the merry band of couples at the next squadron get-together. “It’s maddening, sometimes. I can never tell how he feels.” (Feelings? What’re those? We’re Naval Aviators for Crissake!)

In the summer of 1987 a young LT joined us in the midst of the Pacific, not quite halfway into our cruise. The time required to make one’s way across the world’s largest ocean to a port of embarkation and from thence via C-2 Greyhoundonto a mighty carrier at sea, means that once one has arrived, it’s been weeks since one has piloted an aircraft his own self, and that long, or longer, since his having logged a trap aboard a warship. That, and the fact that one’s flight gear must be re-configured with all the pyrotechnic appurtenances required when operating high performance strike fighter aircraft, such things as are frowned upon in civilian airliners lest they accidently activate pyrotechnically, and therefore having been removed prior to shipping out from Lemoore and now having to be acquired from the supply department and re-installed by the squadron parachute-riggers, and that one’s logbook and other paperwork must be received and reviewed by the NATOPS officer and his boss, the Ops officer, and ultimately the Big Man himself, to ensure that all qualifications are in order and the risk can be assessed as acceptable to consider allowing the new guy to hop in a jet and slip the surly bonds . Oh, about that, too. We’re operating Blue Water, which means there are no suitable divert fields in range of the ship—when you go flying, the only airport available is the one you left from. CV NATOPS requirements, being as they are written in blood, state that if more than xx number of days have elapsed since a pilot’s last trap, a suitable divert field must be available before said pilot may be launched to refresh his Carrier Qualification currency. So the newbe—actually already known to a few in the squadron from his days in trade school and through flight training and a SERGRAD tour—was introduced to his roommates, and shown to his stateroom, and encouraged to get to know his way around, and told to review the squadron SOP, and….hey! Since you’re not gonna be flying for a few more days, you can be assigned Squadron Duty Officer so all your new brothers can be made available for the flight schedule. What a guy!

It should be noted that there are a couple of things about finding your name in the SDO block of the flight schedule that make it somewhat less pleasant than finding it nowhere on the flight schedule, and extremely less pleasant than finding it adjacent to an event number. One is that you have to get up early to report to the desk at the front of the Ready Room at the ungourdly hour of zero something something, while your fellow JOs maintain their standard routine of rising at the crack of noon. Another is that you must wear your khaki uniform as opposed to the flight suits that everyone else in your cohort gets to wear because they are on the schedule, or could fill in in a pinch, if necessary, and you are not. And when thusly clothed, the only feature distinguishing you from a blackshoe professional surface warfare officer when traversing the passageways is the coveted wings of gold insignia affixed above the left breast pocket of your washed khaki shirt.

And so it came to pass that our new LT was attending to SDO duties early one seagoing morning in Ready Room 8 on the fleet’s finest aircraft carrier. Among said duties was the requirement to frequently traverse from the SDO desk at the front of the RR to the rear door that led to Maintenance Control. The CPO in charge of MC would provide aircraft side numbers for filling in the lineup, and other useful information for responding to queries from flight deck control, or pri-fly, or any other entities that might call, or squawk on any of the various comm devices surrounding the duty desk. The configuration of the chairs in RR8 was similar to what you might find in an auditorium, several rows in a 2 – 4 – 2 arrangement all facing forward, with assigned seats for each officer in the squadron. Against the rearmost bulkhead, right next to the door that leads to Maintenance Control was an unassigned ready room chair that was most commonly used by folks reading the message board.

As it happened this morning, and as it happened many an early morning, in fact, the chair was occupied by the Big Man (an early riser each and every day, regardless of how late his night flight). Your humble scribe was also up and about that morning, not happily, but of necessity as was oft required of the schedule writer to ensure that no early morning changes had been made to the Air Plan, which would trickle down to requiring changes to the squadron schedules. Seated in a small office adjacent to the Ready Room his orientation was such that, via peripheral vision, he was able to vaguely sense the back and forth passage of our khaki clad companion as he made his way to and from Maint Control. On about the third trip, as he was about to pass the Big Man, El Jefe looked up from his reading and, pointing toward the LT’s chest, said “Wait a minute, something’s …”. Hizzoner, sensing exactly, in his mind anyway, what The Man was about to say, interrupted with “I know, sir. They haven’t ordered my name tag yet.” “No. That’s not it” came the reply.

As I look back on the scene, all these years gone by, I like to think that the New Guy, being ever the considerate gentleman, had that morning, upon waking, proceeded to quietly, and in near pitch darkness, perhaps illuminated only by a single rack light or maybe the light over the sink, so as not to wake his slumbering roommates, attend to his morning rituals, rig his uniform, dress and depart silently. I imagine that his final self inspection before the dimly lit mirror revealed nothing amiss.

Alas, however, as his squadronmates presented themselves in the Ready Room over the course of the late morning and early afternoon they found on the white board at the front of Compartment 2-242-0-L a crude cartoonish drawing of a khaki uniform shirt, lacking a name tag indeed, but with a neatly drawn pair of Naval Aviator’s wings situated over the right breast pocket. Below the drawing was printed the following:

“dys – LEX – ia”

There might have been a definition, too. Though it wasn’t really necessary.

The subsequent vote was unanimous.

Turns out our new guy was some sort of warrior poet, appreciative of, as well as (exceedingly) skilled at, the clever turn of a phrase. So I think he derived some pleasure from the alliteration and assonance achieved when combining the pseudo-name with his surname. It rolled off the tongue with flair, which also served in later years to avert the question “How’d you get your callsign?” It just seemed a natural combination.

The last time I crossed paths with him was 2003, on the decks of that same warship as she returned from her final deployment. He seemed to have done OK for himself. And he was still sporting the name his brothers had assigned.

Those brothers miss him.


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Filed under Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Fighter Pilot Stories, Funny Stuff, Lex, Navy, Neptunus Lex, Shipmates

21 responses to “What’s Your (call) Sign?

  1. yaJames

    Thanks, Gurns. Great story!

  2. Mike M.

    I’d wondered about that. 🙂

    Call signs can be weird things…and the best ones have a sea story to go with them.

  3. Busbob

    Gurns, thank you! Finally, after repetitive brain exercises to plumb the depths of my shallow knowledge and find the reason for LEX, you have filled the fill. No more will I wonder about a connection–LEXington, refLEX, LEXionary (it’s in the Prayer Book), compLEX, simpLEX, yadda yadda yadda. I really did try to make some connection, didn’t know if it was somewhere in all of Lex’s writing. Thanks.

  4. Wonderful! Though I seem to recall reading how ‘Lex’ came to be. Rhythms, perhaps?

    • xbradtc

      I didn’t have the heart to tell Gurns that Lex already told that story on himself.
      I’m “bettin’ on the come” and hoping Gurns has more tales to tell.

    • Gurns

      I found it hard to believe Lex hadn’t woven his callsign into a story–blame my poor search skills for not finding it in the sea stories archive (I did briefly search, but evidently didn’t make it back to that 2004 post–thanks xbrad). Can’t believe I only just stumbled on his blog this January. Was enjoying visiting NeptunusLex daily and catching up on Lex’s writings. Even discussed them with Bullet over pints of Stout at Gordon Biersch on Sunday, March 4th. We reminisced about those VFA-25 days and hatched the idea of a callsign post to send to Lex. Bullet called me that Tuesday to pass the sad news–stunned and saddened, as we all were. We pressed ahead with the story, hoping this crowd might enjoy it.

  5. shipfitter

    Thanks, Gurns. It’s always nice to hear a great story about someone we respected and admired.

    Question: Does the fact that Lex’s passing garnered so much attention from people not even remotely associated with the Naval Aviation community just a bit strange? I guess what I’m asking is how did those he sailed and flew with see him.


    • Gurns

      Does it seem “a bit strange”. At first one might think so. Lex called it “passing strange”. http://www.neptunuslex.com/2007/04/05/norcal/ (did I mention I’m a novice at this and can’t figure out how to hyperlink within a comment?). However, I’d disagree with your suggestion that the folks among whom Lex garnered attention were “not even remotely associated with the Naval Aviation community”. The fact that you were drawn to his writings, and evidently stuck with them and him, brings your association much closer than ‘remote’. And his character and style clearly allowed any and all to live vicariously through his adventures and tales.
      I doubt you’d be surprised by how those he sailed and flew with saw him. Your guess is likely to be accurate. I happened, by chance, to have seen Shortney recently and ask him if he knew about NeptunusLex. “I read it daily”, he said. I asked him about http://www.neptunuslex.com/2007/02/17/jo-love/ The majority of the details about Dawg and “never been gunned” were vouched for as true. Some of the specific attributions were misplaced.
      Of course, having a former RAG instructor, now a 3-star, read your material daily should provide some additional insight into how he was viewed by those with whom he served.

  6. xbradtc

    Not really worth its own post, and I didn’t get any pics. But about 1pm, I saw a pair of SuperHornets departing John Wayne Airport and heading south. Wish I’d had the camera. Seeing NavAir in parade formation always warms my heart.

  7. oldafsarge

    Need. More. Gurns.

    Truly outstanding!

    Son-in-law’s call sign: Big Time
    Daughter’s call sign: Slushy (excellent story behind that one, but she’d kill me if I ever told it!)

  8. Chaps

    Great post, great writing. Let’s have more. A chaplain, not an aviator but on a carrier assignment, they called me Shaman.

  9. Advokaat

    Gurns – Thank you for that. Please come back and post again.

  10. Gurns,
    Thanks much for that story!
    Don’t be a stranger.

  11. Edward

    Thank you for sharing that wonderful story of how Lex got his moniker.

    It is a good thing they did not know the story of the jaguar — he might have been given the sobriquet, Rolled.

  12. Hi Gurns. Salutations and thanks, for a great tale. Loved it!

    In my eventual chosen career `callsigns` were official issue and totally impersonal but, just like in the military, we all ended up with unofficial ones for use in social banter or in real stress when the unofficial ones would pepper the r/t, much to the annoyance of the `Information Room` supervisors. (Glad I wasn’t, “Blemish”). Still, its all banned these days, in the interests of `sensitivities and morale`.

    Write again soon.

  13. Dust


    Nice turns of phrase. I sincerely hope that your work/life situation allows you to contribute more and again. As noted in the previous commenters’ comboxs: you got writing skilz. Please don’t be a stranger to this site.



  14. Dust

    Anyone recall Lex’s tale on these call signs? I still will laugh out loud when I recall the tale of Enya. Ruthless.

  15. Thanks for that, Gurns. I well-remember the story as Lex told it but it was great to get the view from the other side. I’m from the Great White UP (Lex’s turn of phrase for Canada) and have no connection to the military (other than my father’s and grandfather’s service, long before my time) but, as I told Lex, after reading Rhythms, he had me, hook, line and sinker. 😉

    Your writing reminds me a fair bit of his. I hope you can stick around or at least pop in occasionally.

  16. Comjam

    Gurns, thanks for revealing what Lex, back in the early days of our friendship in the early 90’s made me swear never to speak of. 🙂 (Somewhere out there is a picture of me in my “mirror perfect” Service Dress Blues. Bastahds.) As to either of my call signs, all I will say is one, not seen here, may still have potential legal implications and the one I wear involved the mysteries of an ancient back-up ICS system. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

  17. fuzz1

    Gurns, thanks for this. So cool to hear the story from another perspective. And that picture of a young lieutenant just made me grin. Thanks, aga.

  18. Pingback: Index – The Rest of Neptunus Lex | The Lexicans

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