By lex, on September 6th, 2008
Random observations of a Tailhook Convention from the “other” side of the bed.
There are really two – and maybe three – separate Tailhook Conventions occupying the same physical space. The first consists of eager-eyed junior officers and contented but watchful commanding officers walking about wondering who all the old farts are. They’ve come to talk with their hands in the daylight hours, pop in and out of various briefings as the mood strikes them, walk the convention floor picking up swag that will molder in their closets at home for several years before being swept up in a spring cleaning drill and pick a fight with the flag panel when the time comes to “keep it real.” These guys start slow and gradually pick up steam, hitting peak velocity at sometime around 0200 in the morning outside the several squadron hospitality suites. Like everyone they know, work with and respect they are young and strong, having been selected through a winnowing process that ensures a certain degree of genetic advantage coupled with psychological determination and drive. They are in glowing, almost arrogant good health, and it never occurs to them that things might ever be otherwise.
The second consists of relatively recent retirees and used-to-be’s, looking wistfully at the youngsters in their flight suits and wondering whether they’d gotten permission slips from their parents to be here. They walk the floor catching up with folks they’d served with, passing on the latest “did you hear abouts” and exchanging business cards. This is as much about networking as it is about carrier aviation per se. Their energy level peaks about four o’clock in the afternoon and tapers off towards midnight.
There are intersections between the two groups: At some point, when a tailhook aviator is a year or so out from being piped over the side for the last time, he’ll start paying a little less attention to what troubles the JO’s might be getting into, and a bit more to the guys walking around in khaki chinos and corporate logo polo shirts. Guys he used to know will offer him advice and the use of a Rolodex. Just like someone else did for him years ago. The cycle continues. There’s also a point approaching midnight where the older guy will think that it is time to be gone, that the feast is at its best. And the younger guy will beg him to stay, saying that things have only started. And every last bit of the next morning’s quality of life will depend upon what happens at that point.
The third group are those for whom these first two cycles are complete. They are not so much going to Reno anymore as they are coming home. They have fought the good fight, they have kept the faith and they have very nearly finished the race. They stand on once strong legs that have been made weak by time and fate, look out into the world with watery eyes, turn their heads to the side the better to hear the man on the stage speak, through ears battered by the sounds of engines turning and guns firing. But their backs are still broad, still strong and proud. As they must be, for these men are giants and successive generations of warriors still stand upon their shoulders.
There’s an intersecting point where the old fart energy is on the downslope but before the youngsters come fully up to speed where the guy flying a $50 million dollar supersonic strike fighter off an 90,000-ton angle deck carrier sits with rapt attention to the guy who fought at Midway or Coral Sea in a crate powered by a belching radial engine with six .50 cal machine guns in the wings. A man who flew off a 20,000 ton, straight-deck postage stamp bobbing around in the great blue briny, when the enemy was everywhere and nowhere and the safety of the Republic stood in the balance. And if he’s lucky, the young guy will learn a little bit more about himself, and where he came from. He might feel the throttle in his hand and feel the vibration of the stick as his eyes sweep the skies for Japanese fighters, scans the wavetops for a periscope. He might at a distance and dimly know the anger, fear and determination of a desperate struggle on an epic scale.
He might realize that the air we fly through has not changed in all the intervening time, nor yet the sea through which we swim, nor even this our flesh. He might consider that, while, yes, the technology continues to evolve, what is a mere machine – no matter how advanced – against the endless sea, the vaulting sky and our very human nature? And maybe, if he’s very lucky and has the wit to think on it, the youngster will look into the old man’s soft eyes and learn a little bit about where he himself is going. He might learn that this is why we come to Reno – not to debauch, nor to exchange business cards. But to know ourselves.
- “Bug” Roach mixer dress code or not, there are certain guys who really ought not to wear their flight suits any more. If you’re not sure whether or not I’m talking about you, I am. Don’t hate.
- There are an alarming number of people who greeted your correspondent with a cheerful, “Neptunus Lex!” Some of them were rather alarmingly senior flag officers. So much for our tattered veil of anonymity, like.
- There are times when it’s good to be retired.
- That stuff like this can make a man feel old: Guys I went to school with command Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and carrier air wings. Guys I flew alongside and who left the service decades ago to fly for the airlines have lost their medical clearance due to the indignities of advancing age. Guys who worked for me as lieutenants are now post-command commanders in charge of fleet replacement squadrons and the Fighter Weapons School. One guy that was a lieutenant while I was a lieutenant is now the three star commander of the whole fracking Fifth Fleet. If you can wrap your mind around that.
- Kids: They grow up so fast!
- That when the spirits are strong, the Spirit may be willing but the flesh is weak. Put another way (and in the words of the immortal bombardier/navigator Dave Nichols, “I can still handle the sortie, I just can’t handle the turn-around.”
- That it’s time to go home.