Old Ghosts

By lex, on January 24th, 2009

For some reason last night, Yeoman Seaman Locastro was haunting my memories. He was the Ops Yeoman in my first line squadron, my first deployment – more than 20 years ago. As such, he spent a lot of time in the ready room, where all the pilots prepared and briefed their flights, did their day work and gave each other the needle in the typically good-natured, but rough and tumble custom of a fighter ready room. You quickly learned not to be thin-skinned, to never let them see you sweat. Weakness is provocative.

I had not yet seen my first fly-off, when all of the most senior officers flew the 12 jets back to the beach. Had never seen the ready room slowly fill with sailors and petty officers that had no official reason to be there, and no official authority willing to object to their presence. Had not yet thought through the longing that presence reflected as they filtered slowly in, sat in the pilots’ chairs, and watched the ship’s TV until the carrier entered the inner roads in San Diego harbor. How very different their own experience of the Navy was because of our differing stations in life.

As an enlisted man in the all-officer ready room environment, Locastro could not be a part of us. But he had seen it all, been on the periphery of the fraternity, seen our  highs and lows, heard things he probably ought not to have heard, things he almost certainly shared with his messmates, things that quickly made their way around the ship. He had seen how different our lives were than his own. I guess a part of the attitude wore off on him.

He was rail thin in a white flight deck jersey and blue bell-bottomed dungarees, with the same jail-house pallor that those of us who spent minimal flight deck time would wear eventually, but which I – recently arrived from California and still tanned – viewed at first as a sign of ill-health. His face still bore the scars of a vicious case of childhood acne beneath greasy brown hair that flopped across his brow. I don’t remember his first name, or anything else about him.

As the new guy joining a squadron that was already fully worked up for deployment, I had a lot to learn. Particularly how to land the damn jet safely at night, with everything moving around and no references to the horizon – the haze is cruel in the North Arabian Sea in the summer time. My name took up the lowest spot on the squadron “greenie board *, where each and every landing grade was annotated with the wire caught, and a color code: Green for an above average landing, yellow for a “fair” pass, orange for a wave-off or bolter, brown for a “no-grade” and red for a “cut” pass.

In time I would become an accomplished carrier aviator, long green streaks would follow my name on the greenie board and I would be awarded honors and accolades at the air wing celebrations that ended each interval on the line. But that time had not yet come, and the green and yellow squares were everywhere interspersed with brown blocks, no-grade passes. “Turds” they were called. The number “1″, for the one wire, the arresting cable closest to the stern, was often almost hidden under that dark brown stain. Almost.

I was a deck spotter, and a poor one at that. Especially at night. It was personally very frustrating, and I was letting the team down – squadrons compete  among each other for excellence as much as the pilots within the squadrons do, if not more. There were frowns and lifted eye-brows, the quiet exchange of meaningful glances. An almost audible note of things shivering in the balance, opinions being formed that might eventually lead to A Decision.

I’d walk up to the roof to man up my jet, and if the machine was parked aft on the fantail, I’d routinely kick the one wire with my flight boot, saying to it, “Not tonight, you hard-hearted bitch.” The braided steel cable would always shrug my insults off indifferently, bouncing back into position atop the fiddle bow. It could afford to wait patiently, wait and see. It would be there for me if I chose it.

On one particular night I did indeed choose the one-wire, albeit against my will. My tailhook leaving a deeply incriminatory trail of sparks half-way from the round down to the cable. Another turd for the greenie board on a dark, horizonless night. The yellow-shirted flight deck director waiting for me all the way up at my 12:30 position, rather than at one to two o’clock. The shame of knowing. The anticipation of the needle from my squadron mates.

But when the needle came, it was from an unexpected source. YNSN Locastro was sitting in his duty chair when I entered the ready room, having already debriefed my flight in the ship’s intelligence center and shrugged off my g-suit and harness in the paraloft. He sat there with a goofy smile on his face, and said the words he’d so often heard the pilots exchange on such occasions: “You fell out of the sky like a turd coming off a tall moose!”

It was too much. I strode across the small space angrily, flushed, an accusatory finger in his blanching face: “When you’ve done it once – just once! – then you’ll have earned the right to give me shit.” Feeling, in the moment, fully justified. Being, ever after, slightly ashamed of myself. Seaman Locastro had indeed crossed a line, but both of us knew he would never have the opportunity to land a fighter aboard a carrier deck. I’d allowed my personal feelings of anger and self-doubt to exhale upon a subordinate who could not answer them, and who had not earned them. He had abused his familiarity, but I had abused my authority. Mine was the greater crime.

Just as I would learn to be a better pilot in time, so too would I learn to be a better officer. I would learn to better keep my temper, deflect familiarities with subtlety, honor those who served as best they could. It was not that I never got angry at a subordinate, never chastised anyone, never raised my voice – I did. But in the future, my ire would be official rather than personal. I owed them that.

Seaman Locastro is now probably in his late 30′s or early 40′s, and I doubt that he remembers me. But I remember him.

I also remember YN2 Joe Theis, and his running mate, PN3 Boudreaux. When I was the squadron personnel officer, they were in my small shop, doing the important but unglamorous work of ensuring that the peoples’ service records were properly maintained, that they were paid and advanced on time, that their awards were properly documented. Not so very much younger than me, in retrospect, but seeming like kids at the time. Easy men to lead, and fun to be around. Good sailors.

We had them to dinner one night at home, the Hobbit served a nice meal. There might even have been a bottle of wine shared. We put work aside and talked easily about life, and the news of the day while staying well within the bounds of a naval discipline that eschews undue familiarity. It’s a warm memory still.

Joe stumbled across the blog a few years back, wrote a lovely note. He’d left the service, went to college, got married, and started a family. Owns his own business now, I believe. He said that I had been one of the most important influences in his young life, that I had made a difference in everything that happened after. He thanked me, and I thanked him back for his service, the memories he evoked, and the kindness he had shared by contacting me.

You never really know the difference you can make in a young person’s life. The small gestures, the casual conversations. If Joe Theis can thank me for being the leader he needed, I suppose I owe a debt of gratitude to YNSN Locastro for helping me become that leader. A debt I can perhaps partially repay with this long-deferred apology.

Pete. That was his first name.


*A board in the ready room showing the landing grades of all the aviators given by the LSO– Ed

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Uncategorized

9 responses to “Old Ghosts

  1. This was one of Lex’s posts that really stuck in my memory. That he would remember such a thing, and feel the need to make an unsolicited public confession and apology when probably no one else remembered, says a lot about his character.
    Compare to just about any of today’s public figures.

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  3. JT

    Mr. Wilner, my name is Joe Theis (mentioned in this blog) and Capt. Lefon was a JO in the squadron I was attached to (VFA-25). I had the honor of serving with him for a few years. Mr. Lefon was not only an inspiration but one of the best leaders I had come to work for. Sadly jacking around on the web punched his name in and saw that he was killed, broke my heart even after 20+ years of being discharged from the US Navy.

    I lost my father last year now sadly two of the greatest men forgers of in my life are gone but their memories and legacies live on. We did email each other a few years back I was heading to San Diego for a conference never had the change to meet up with he and Mary also was afraid they would feed me hot peppers again, UGHHHH:-)

    I was unaware of this talent as a blogger but as a personal tribute to him will be reading ALL of his posts. R.i.P. Lex you were truly one of the most inspirational forces in my life and I am sure a long list of others he as one helluva good human being!!! – JT

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