By lex, on September 19th, 2006
In port we were, between one nameless at sea period and the next, with five beautiful days to spend in sunny Sandy Eggo – a real treat for the high desert warriors of Naval Air Station Lemoore, California.
Lemoore was a wonderful place to learn the trade of flying strike fighters for there were bombing targets and fighting ranges and wide open countryside that a man and his wingman might rage around at, very down low, with never a living soul to complain, or if there was he didn’t have the telephone number of the complaint hot line. As wonderful as it was for learning the Art and Skill of breaking other peoples’ gear and flaming their jets, the better to let the sojers do their thing, it was very far from heaven from the perspective of Other Stuff to Do, once the flying thing was over.
Sandy Eggo though held many and sundry treasures for the earnest seeker, and of the sorts of things there were to do and see, Shakespeare in the Park, the museums at Balboa and the Christian Science Reading Room were by no means the ne plus ultra, although I’m certain they had their admirers. It was perhaps a measure of the times that not least among the local delights was the officers’ club at the Naval Air Station Miramar, California, Fightertown as it was then y-clept, or Hummertown as the Hornet guys might call it, fair being fair and the E-2 bubbas having at least an equal claim.
Wednesday night on this particular in port it was impressed into our noggins that we couldn’t go very far astray by at least starting out at the club before strapping on the night vision goggles and heading into town. It was “happy hour,” and although the days of Tom Cruise singing “You never close your eyes, anymore, when I kiss your lips” to that blonde woman who really should have taken better care of herself afterwards were over (if they ever had truly existed) it was nevertheless true that an otherwise average man with an unmistakably smelly flight suit could, once the feast was at its best, nevertheless be certain of the kind of spirited adventure that might one day be remembered in song.
Being married at the time, your humble narrator’s interest was purely of the academic nature, and so it was that he found himself on the back porch of the club, where there was an enormous fire pit, gas fueled and maybe four feet wide and twenty feet long. The brick walls enclosing the seat of the heat was maybe up to mid-thigh on your basic fighter jock, and the flames lapped happily at the recessed grill atop, the two of them serving to chase off the chill night air.
Your correspondent was in a serious discussion with an enormous and poetically gifted F-14 RIO who went by the moniker of “Mean Jim,” on account of the fact that, even amongst a crowd of people who enjoyed surgical blood-letting as a kind of competitive sport, he was rather a hard sun of a beach. Only funny, which made it OK.
Our conversation was of the very highest quality, given the environment and the lateness of the hour, meaning it had by then devolved into a spirited discussion of who sucked worse, Tomcat guys or Hornet jocks. Testable propositions were blurrily exchanged and shoutingly refuted, and there was many a wagging finger in the air. Push had not yet come to shove, nor yet drool to chin, but it was a close-run thing.
Mugger arrived, bringing nothing new to a discussion that had already barrelled over the precipice of absurd antipathy but a surfeit of self-confidence and a tongue he could not sufficiently master to form comprehensible syllables, the building blocks of rational speech and along with opposable thumbs, the pride of our race. Mugger, it must be pointed out, was widely believed to have A Problem, when it came to demon rum.
Understanding the rest of his contemporaries lends context to that observation.
Having blearily observed Mugger through narrowed eyes for a moment or two, Mean Jim and your correspondent agreed by tacit and mutual consent that he was contributing nothing to the conversation we had not already disposed of, several beers ago. We turned our attentions back to each other, the better for to goad and gall, best practices and all that.
A few moments passed before we realized that Mugger had ceased his slurry contributions to the verbal brawl, an absence that was as palpable in his case as a presence might be in other, lesser men. We cast our eyes back to his last known posit, and seeing nothing there – but unsure how, in those crowded spaces, he might have slipped past us, we looked down at last to find Mugger in the fire.
You have heard of cognitive dissonance, gentle reader? The inability to reconcile what you are sensing within the boundaries of what you previously thought was possible? It is passing strange, to see a man in the fire. You do not expect it. It can be hard to take in, all at once.
A man can hesitate.
Tic turned to toc and back to tic again, while your correspondent and Mean Jim took in the scope and grandeur of Mugger there in the fire, rolling around. It came to us in time: Perhaps Mugger had not meant to throw himself in the fire, we considered. Perhaps he had only stumbled and tripped, and was now trying fruitlessly to lever himself out, shins thrashing against the upper parapets, but no matter how uncomfortable, still as yet unwilling to place his tender hands – the which were required to fly fighters – against the burning grill, the better for to push up and out.
The moment stretched and then snapped. Our argument forgotten (for the moment) we reached manfully in and hauled him out.
Oh, for the virtues of nomex flight suits. Burned were his forearms, and crisped his eyebrows, but the rest of him was merely reddened, like. Our newest flight surgeon, a young man fresh out of medical school who, far from projecting that satisfying aura those of us of a certain age associate with Marcus Welby, MD, appeared instead to be around 15 years of age. Sadly, his demeanor in port made him seem younger. He rushed weavingly out to the back porch to beerily declare that everything was all right! He could fix Mugger! Make him better than before! It had all to do with training, see? And experience!
It was only then that Mugger panicked.
Fortunately, some sober medical professionals showed up soon thereafter and escorted Mugger to the hospital, where his arms were treated and bandaged. Being the kind of man he was, he showed back up at the club an hour or so later, bandages oozing, but not yet entirely sober, the better for to share in the telling of the tale, already being rapidly augmented by those of us who had missed the event itself, but would not miss the telling of it. The rest of it fades, the curtain comes down.
A year or so later I asked one of his squadron mates what had ever become of Mugger.
“Oh, he went to admiral’s mast,” he replied casually. Like it was going to the grocer’s.
“Admiral’s mast?” I cried. “Whatever for?”
“Well, he got pulled over DWI on base one night. The enlisted security guys looked at his ID, and, realizing that he was an officer whose career would be ruined by an arrest, gave him a break and told him to call the squadron duty officer to come and pick him up. He could get his car tomorrow.”
“Lucky man,” said I. “And what was his response?”
“He started laughing,” my interlocutor said. “Which was, as you can imagine, rather off-putting to the security team. ‘Sir, this is serious,’ they said. ‘Why don’t you just call your SDO?’ ”
“Because,” Mugger replied, “I am the SDO.”
Which, speaking of cognitive dissonance, clearly exceeded the security team’s collective ability to grok. Not only was our hero drunk, but he was drunk on watch. It was off to the pokey for Lieutenant Mugger, SDO or no.
The admiral made short work of our hero, and sent him on his merry. He flies for a major airline today, I believe. One of those handful who, if I hear his name on the announcing system before pushback, might lead me to reconsider my travel plans.