By lex, on July 19th, 2008
I had a beer last Friday with an old friend, like me recently retired as a captain. We were roommates back in the day along with a third brother of another mother, as lieutenants aboard the USS Constellation. A thousand years ago, or it might as well have been. A lifetime ago.
Do you remember that movie, “Stand By Me“? At the end, Richard Dreyfuss – the narrator – voices over the conclusion the 60′s coming of age tale thus: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
Yeah, they do. If they go to sea together for months on end they might. If they’ve flown aircraft off together off carrier decks they might. If they’ve been ashore in foreign ports together and seen what the night could bring, they might. If they’ve been separated from their families and flung together in forced intimacy they might. If they’ve sat in coffin racks at 0200 and tried to find a way to fall asleep after a hairy night behind the boat, it helps. Laid in the darkness with their eyes closed and ears wide open and heard the stress breaks in each other’s voices. Filled in the spaces where the words ran out. You could have friends like that.
Things have changed a lot since then of course. We all grew up. I had two daughters to go with the son and wife I missed. He got divorced, remarried, started another family. We all moved around. Somehow we both ended up in the same place again we’d run a merry lap or two around back when we were junior officers. Mere chance.
We had two beers, talked about times old and new and then walked out to the parking lot. Who’d have believed it, I asked. You and me. After all these years. Retired captains, for God’s sake.
He laughed and agreed. And because we were once roommates, I wondered if he was thinking about the same moment I was. The moment wherein all of those things that have transpired since the fall of 1988 might have been suddenly cut short, and an entirely different history unfolded. One that lacked your correspondent and his two daughters. One that lacked my friend’s new family.
It was a long range night strike into the Hawaiian operating areas – work ups for deployment. My friend wouldn’t make the cruise itself, he already had orders to the Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland. I was the attack element lead, and he was my wingman. The mission ran smoothly all the way to the target, which was in itself a kind of blessing. This was before night vision goggles turned the lights back on at night, and coming safely across a target with a large force at night in a expeditious fashion required meticulous planning, flawless execution and a generous dollop of luck. Hurling yourself at the ground in the daytime in a large force strike, with everyone else vying for a piece of the same delivery cone is hard. At night, with no NVDs it’s like Chinese algebra. Sometimes you suck it up and trust to fate. Mostly it works out.
A few minutes later we were off target, feet wet, through the tanker and on the way back to the ship. Close enough for the post-target let down to set in, for the adrenaline to leech out of our systems. Far enough away from the ship to leave fretting over the night landing for another moment. The boat wasn’t going anywhere, there’d be time enough to worry about the Terror Machine when we got on final. And as wingmen and roommates we were young, capable and familiar with each other. We were, in a word, complacent.
Little things add up. I checked my inertial nav and turned a degree or two to starboard, towards the ship’s expected recovery position. My roommate might have checked his abeam distance in our combat spread formation and decided he was a trifle wide, checking a degree or two to the left in the pitch black night. We were now on gradually converging headings. We were tired. Our minds were elsewhere. I didn’t see him arcing towards me until I saw his formation lights passing under my jet. Ten? Twenty feet below me? Too late to take any kind of evasive action. I would have gone to my fate thoroughly at ease.
In the FA-18, the altitude readout on the heads up display is in a digital format. If you’re assigned a 27,000 foot altitude, 26,990 feet is not correct. Neither is 27,010 feet. Right is right, everything else is wrong. It doesn’t matter that in any other jet the difference could be attributed to pointer error or parallax. You fly the assigned number. He was at 27k and so was I.
Which is why I still don’t understand to this day how we missed each other. How the timeline we all now share wasn’t suddenly deflected, every moment from that to this altered, all of these possibilities revised and emended. Why it is you, gentle reader, are looking at these words instead of some others.
Mere chance. No rational reason.
Do you ever think of that night, I asked in the parking lot. Off Hawaii?
Only when I see you again brother, he answered.
Yeah, I replied. I know what you mean.
See you next time.