By lex, on August 17th, 2010
Numerous occasional readers have asked me to comment on the following story:
A rookie Navy aviator can end up being called “Torch” if he sports red hair — or if he’s too quick to turn on his afterburner. A pilot who struggles to fit into his flight suit could end up as “Shamu.” But as barriers to the once insular world made up of white men have fallen — first to minorities, then women and, maybe soon, openly gay personnel — what’s an edgy call sign to one person could be seen as an offensive epithet by another.
That’s what led Ensign Steve Crowston to complain after, he says, Navy aviators in Strike Fighter Squadron 136 in Oceana, Va., considered many humiliating call signs for him before settling on “Romo’s Bitch,” a reference to their suspicion that the fan of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was gay. Crowston says the various options had been written on a whiteboard for an Aug. 17, 2009, “call-sign review” in the unit’s ready room, where more than a dozen officers would decide which one would be most appropriate for several new squadron members. “I saw my name at the top of the board, and I saw ‘Gay Boy,’ ‘Fagmeister,’ ‘Romo’s Bitch,’ ‘Redskins,’ ‘Cowgirl’ written underneath. I was stunned and shocked that I was sitting in the ready room with those kinds of words up on the board,” Crowston says. “The commanding officer and executive officer” — the unit’s top two officers — “were voting members, and they allowed the whole room to vote on my call sign. They went line by line, word by word, and they voted and the one that got the most votes was ‘Romo’s Bitch.’”
My response, is, essentially, “Meh.”
One of the first things a junior officer learns in a fighter squadron is never to let ‘em see you sweat, never reveal a chink in your armor. Weakness is provocative.
That said, I was always more fond of the kind of callsign that either played upon a person’s name or demonstrated buffoonery than some immutable characteristic not of his choosing – “Enya Derespinas” expresses true art, in a naval aviation sense – and there are any number of “Wheels,” “Strains,” and “Stress” callsigns out there for those who either, a) forgot to lower the rollers or, 2) couldn’t refrain from over-stressing the machine. “Lex,” somewhat infamously, is a shortened version of “dyslexic.”
Could have been worse.
But on the other hand, I did take the opportunity while a department head to veto a callsign I found well across the lines of good taste. There was a groundswell of opinion to call a ground officer of Hispanic descent “Beaner” that I shot down through moral force alone, lacking as I did positional authority over the famously horizontal Junior Officer’s Protective Association to whom these kinds of decisions fell. After all, what are we going to call the next African American officer – “Sambo”?
It simply wouldn’t do, and what would the troopers think?
There was also a movement when I was CO of a squadron to attach a callsign that I found offensive to a young intel officer with the last name of “Lovan.” I told the JOPA that, at that stage of my career? I declined to be offended.
They came up with “Easy” instead.
One pilot of my acquaintance carried around a rather awkward callsign to go with his last name, “Seamon,” and never complained. It was changed slightly to “Sport” when he became a team member of the Blue Angels. Doing well being one of life’s sweetest revenges. I even had a JO with the last name of “Layton” whose initial callsign was “Homo.”
Get it? “Latent homo”?
Which he wasn’t of course, and being a more than usually good egg, he accepted his new radio callsign with casual good grace until the ready room tired of saying it on the radio. He didn’t, to use perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase, allow himself to get all buttsore over it. Keeping in mind that there’s no slack in fighter attack, some of the female pilots and aircrew of my acquaintance got callsigns that might have made their mothers wince, but they took it in good stride. If you’re going to be a part of a team that sends people out to fight and kill and maybe die, you don’t want to be known as the one whose feelings have to be pampered.
So far as I can tell, the only person asserting that ENS Crowston was suspected by his squadron members of being ghey is, well: ENS Crowston. And since “Romo’s Bitch” takes too long to say for what is after all intended to be an element of communications brevity, I’m fairly certain that the handle was shortened to “RB”, if in fact it was used at all. Ground pounders owning callsigns more as a mark of fraternal courtesy than inevitable custom.
It used to be that naval aviation was made of sterner stuff, but nowadays we call in the Inspector General’s office whenever we get our feelings hurt. Twice.
But whatevs: Mr. Crowston is now on his way to join a SEAL support unit in Little Creek, VA. Where, I’m sure, he will be tenderly cared for.
*08-17-16 – Read Lex’s story of Sport, March 6, 2007 – Ed.
12-24-20 – How Lex got his callsign