By lex, on June 1st, 2005
I was thinking the other day about how much of the interest in militaria tends to accrue to the gear, rather than the gear-er. For my part, I’ve always thought that it was the people who made the Navy great (and other people, although only occasionally, who can make it miserable). We spend long months far from home in enforced proximity with people whom we might not otherwise choose to associate – surface warfare officers and submariners, for example. But as aviators, especially in the somewhat rarefied air of single-seat strike fighter squadrons, we generally tend to get on pretty famously. You just meet a lot of really great people.
Wacko was one of them.
I had a flight surgeon assigned to my squadron who perceptively noted that while a squadron ready room aboard ship could be a very comfortable and homey den to the fighter jock who is a member of the fraternity, it can seem a cold and inhospitable place for the uninitiated. What can appear a distant arrogance is probably better described as a simple language barrier: We tend to so load up our discourse with technical jargon – itself explicitly crafted for brevity, in order to communicate the most amount of information in the briefest possible time – as to make it nearly inaccessible, even to other naval officers. Sometimes even to other aviators: I recall having supper one evening after returning aboard from a four-ship defensive counter air training mission, and chatting amiably with my wingies over chow. We’d had a great hop, having over several hacks repeatedly biffed the adversary pilots of our sister FA-18 squadron – there is no sweeter pleasure – and were relieving the tale of our victorious adventures with much hearty back-slappery and fist thumping rejoicery. A Royal Navy helicopter pilot sat at our table, smiling amiably, quietly sharing in the camaraderie and our evident self-satisfaction. For his own part, he contributing nothing himself until at last the merriment had subsided, when he remarked, with typical British understatement, “That was the most extraordinary conversation I think I’ve ever witnessed. I could have sworn that it took place in English, and yet I’m certain that I didn’t understand one word in ten.” We’d been poor hosts! We looked at him perplexedly, and wondered what we could talk about that we’d all find interesting that he’d understand. Unfortunately, as we moved out of an area that we were all conversant in, we probably ended up seeming rather cool and withdrawn. We all knew that we shared the love of aviation (and victory!) in common – everything else, we weren’t so sure about.
Ah, if only Wacko had been there. Wacko could make anyone feel right at home. Wacko was a master of the wardroom table.
There are three social venues aboard ship – the wardroom, the ready room and the stateroom. The stateroom is the closest thing you have to privacy at sea – it’s about the size of a walk-in closet, and sleeps three junior officers who compete in everything but love each other like brothers, although they are not allowed to ever admit it, at least not while sober. It is the den, the retreat, and anything that is said in the stateroom remains there.
The ready room is the center of squadron life at sea, at least for the pilots. But it’s also a collective workspace for hideously extended workdays, and there are grownups around, so it’s not all beer and skittles, all the time, in the ready room.
But the wardroom is where you get to pick your friends and enlarge your team, especially during midnight rations, or mid-rats. Three squares a day for the junior officer at sea, but in that he likely didn’t wake up until 1030, dinner starts at 1100 and supper serves at 1700 or so, it’s very likely that his final meal for the night will be served to him at “rats,” sometime right around midnight. And mostly, the grownups are all gone to bed by midnight, so you have the place to yourselves.
No, it’s not very healthy to choke down a double cheeseburger with bacon and guacamole (add fried egg for the full “Barney Clark ”) just before going to bed, but then again young men who fling themselves and their craft onto heaving, rolling, pitching carrier decks at night don’t tend to get distracted by “long term” health concerns. Plus, you fall asleep quite quickly after a meal like that, and it’ll last you through maybe 12 hours of rack time, so long as you keep the bladder in check (or don’t mind sleeping on the diamond cutter). Because it’s also important to keep in mind that if you can sleep 12 hours a day, it’s only a three-month cruise…
And Wacko? He was a pilot in my sister squadron during that first operational tour. Because he was a part of the competition, but not part of the tribe, we were naturally all predisposed to cordially detest him. Except that Wacko was in-detestable. The truth of it was that he was one of the greatest guys you’d ever meet. A graduate of the University of Chicago (a music major, for all love – flying fighters!), he was brilliant and urbane, possessed of a kind of wit that enabled him to hold the many of us in gasping, wheezing, weeping laughter for what seemed like hours on end. Oh, I can’t tell you how he did it, or what he said – it was just that wherever the conversation turned, Wacko had headed it off at the pass, and had a way to turn the mundane into the insane. And as the long days on the line turned into weeks, and the weeks into undifferentiated months, that ability was a pearl beyond price. At the wardroom table at mid-rats, Wacko was the king, and the rest of us were all his grateful court.
He was also a great guy to go ashore with on liberty – not only was he built like an Olympian athlete (and therefore a good guy to have alongside, in any of your sketchier establishments or locales), he was also ludicrously good looking – wherever he went, the local lovelies seemed to congregate en masse, which was obviously an attraction to, you know, the guys who, well. Liked girls.
Or so I’ve heard.
But Wacko had two flaws (one more than the standard Achaean hero): For one, he’d hit a saturation point on any given night ashore and turn suddenly, and without warning, into a marauding nightmare. It happened quickly, there was no forewarning – at one moment, suave man about town, the next, with no transition, a raving lunatic, baying at the moon. Hence the callsign, Wacko.
The other one was rather unusual: Wacko couldn’t fly the ball at night to save his life. I mean literally. He was an absolutely horrible pilot in the night carrier landing environment. He knew it. Everyone else knew it. But he was altogether too decent and wonderful a person (occasional trips to Bedlam notwithstanding) to merely cut loose, or scrape off. So his command dealt with the problem the old fashioned way: Having a problem getting aboard at night? Fine – do it every night until you figure it out.
Wacko used to say that a night cat shot was an IQ test – you turn your external lights on (signaling readiness to launch), you fail.
Oh, it was a circus, gentle reader. Every night the throngs would assemble – on the LSO platform, in CATCC, in the ready rooms. All of them enthralled by Wacko on Danger TV. And each night he’d have some horrible night in the barrel, either repeated wave-off lights and trips to the tanker, or long bolters, with everyone holding their breath as he milked the jet airborne again, from below the flight deck level. Every night it was anyone’s guess how it would all turn out. Eventually he’d trap of course, because it’s either that or go for a swim, or die. But by the time he’d get aboard he’d be so reduced to brain stem function and fear that he’d rest there in the one wire, with his lights still flashing, in full afterburner, unable or unwilling to believe that it was finally over. The air boss would call, “Lights on deck,” on the radio, indicating that, “We have you, throttle back, ease down.” To no avail, at least at first.
Wacko was nearly always the last to land, on his recovery. And when he did so, he’d clear the wires at his own pace, thank you very much.
It could have been the kind of thing that would have humiliated a lesser man. It could have been the weapon that lesser men would turn against him. Neither possibility came true. We all wanted him to succeed, even as we watched his struggles with a combination of schadenfreude and survivor’s guilt. But most of all, we recognized the sheer physical courage that he demonstrated. There is very little in the world that is more demanding of perfection than landing a high performance fighter on the moving deck of a warship at sea, at night. And Wacko didn’t do it very well. And not doing it very well is a better than average way to die young.
But he never stopped trying. He never quit. And on top of everything else, we respected that. And every night when he launched into the darkness, knowing that the reckoning for the cat shot he accepted, for the “IQ test” he failed, was no more that 90 minutes or so away, we all silently said a prayer for him. And when he finally trapped, on the one wire, in burner, with his lights flashing, one hundred air wing pilots raised their fists in the air and celebrated with him.
He finished his tour. Left the Navy. Went back to Chicago, got a law degree. I lost track of him.
It’s too bad – he’s still the bravest man I ever knew.