By lex, on May 21st, 2009
I think it was two days ago last year that I hung my khakis up, turned the lights out and walked out into the world. There are a number of things you miss – a great number – and a few you don’t. I don’t miss getting the 0200 phone call notifying me that a plane had gone missing. I don’t miss the series of phone calls to follow, some professional, some deeply personal.
But since my new gig is a kind of halfway house for transitioning naval officers and aviators, and because we’re all so closely tied together, I get to see some of the latter anyway.
One of my co-workers was a helicopter pilot stationed out of North Island – the flag there was at half mast yesterday – and she knew people from HS-6. Knew their families. Knew what they were going through while the Navy was trying to find and notify “next of kin.” She left work to stay with the friend that she was closest with as the phones started to ring.
When an FA-18 goes down at sea, the pilot could have come from any one of four squadrons. But there’s only the one helicopter squadron on an aircraft carrier, and when five crewmen go missing, a lot of lives get touched.
There’s an official notification system, and then there’s the unoffical system. As soon as the word gets out a little, the unofficial system springs into action, and the phones lines catch fire. “Have you heard?”, “Who was it?” “Her husband was flying last night.” “My husband got word to me, it wasn’t him.”
In a process of elimination, eventually everyone knows who is accounted for, and who is not. The loved ones of the former feel overwhelming relief when they get the word, and then grief, and eventually even guilt. As the network forms and stabilizes, the phones of the latter set stop ringing. They are then left to wait for the knock on the door that will change their ordered lives to chaos.
An then the old process of communal grief-sharing, caring and comforting begins.
We had a memorial service shortly after my own personal “worst day ever.” There were prayers, a missing man fly-by, and then we all got together at the CO’s house and shared our grief. We’d all had a bit to drink, and one of the senior officer’s wives hugged me tightly before whispering into my ear “I’m so glad it wasn’t you.”
I guess I understood it: I was married with two young children, and Terry was a bachelor.
But I don’t know if I ever quite forgave her for saying that.
Or maybe I couldn’t quite forgive myself.