It’s funny where life takes you. Sometimes the smallest step takes you in an unforeseen new direction. I had never heard of Carroll “Lex” LeFon, until that fateful day at chicagoboyz when David Foster told his readers of Lex’s accident. He linked a few of his favorite Lex posts, and from my very first Lex post I was off in a new direction.
How could I have foreseen that from one click on a link over 5 years ago I’d be writing about Lex today? How could Lex have foreseen 14 years ago that for nearly 9 years he’d be telling readers stories of his life and opinions of the day? Or that he would come to consider many of his readers to be “the best friends he never met”?
I found his writing to be addictive. I had, however, been trying to understand for quite a while why his writing was so enjoyable for me.
If all he wrote were good sea stories – and some of them are now permanently etched in my consciousness – I’d still have remembered him. He wrote some of the funniest stories I have ever read, such as Bones, Lazlorus, to….Piddle Packs. There was one story of his that had comic timing so superb, that I was laughing with tears in my eyes. And the beauty of that story was that the timing was the same for Lex and his squadron mates years ago in those Hornet cockpits. Lex definitely saw a lot of humor in life.
Virtually everything I now know about Naval Aviation is due to Lex. A few months ago, I was honored to meet a Navy base commander, and I told him that I thought Lex was one of the greatest ambassadors to Naval Aviation.
But even with all of that I wouldn’t have been moved to write this.
For me his writing had even more to offer.
I read through the archives we had multiple times – thanks to advokaat, who saved Lex’s literary legacy into files before his website went down. With his site gone, I continued my reading from the files. Without his saving most of them for his later reading, nearly 9 years of Lex’s work – stories of his life and his observations on life – would have been gone forever.
Having read these repeatedly I believe that I came to know him. Running through my imagination though is an indeterminate time in the future where Lex and I are sitting over some Guinness and with a wry smile he is saying to me, “So, you think you know me now, do you?” And I will reply with a smile, “Yes I do, because you wrote with your heart and your mind!”
I admired his approach to life. “Hope is not a strategy”, he would say. He didn’t live his life passively, waiting and hoping for something to happen. He worked to make what he wanted to happen in his life. Worked to change what he wanted to change. Didn’t blame anyone but himself for any deficiencies he saw in himself .
There’s enough that I absorbed, from approaching fear and persevering, to good leadership, that I’d have to say that my life became enriched by simply having clicked on that link 5 years ago and crossing paths.
“…When I was new to the job, there would be times at a half mile or so where the panic would try to well up: “this isn’t possible,” it would say… “it can’t be done.” Your job at that point is to stuff the demon of doubt into its container, where you could examine it more closely later, usually just as you were falling asleep. At that particular moment, on final approach, it’s just not useful. This is called “compartmentalization,” and whether it is a learned skill, or something that the service selects people for, is very much an open question. But it is a necessary survival skill…”
–Lex describing a night carrier landing
He was a man of faith who lived his life with passion. He loved his family, the Navy and flight. “But I always knew that I was a better aviator than an officer…”, he said on more than one occasion.
“…Officers may have grand ideas, formulate strategy, and think tactics. But without a Chief to carry the water for him, to take the rubber to the road, to see the tactics through to execution, everything he thinks or says or writes is so much finger-painting, so much vaporing, so much ephemera. With the Chief’s mess on your side, all things are possible. If they turn against you, because you can’t live up to their expectations of an officer (these are, thankfully, much less stringent than their expectations for themselves), you will fail. It is exactly that simple.
You will fail, but the mission will not – they will not allow it to. They will “mushroom” you – keep you in the dark, and feed you sh**, because they will not allow an incompetent officer to get in the way of fulfilling the mission. They will not allow an uncaring officer to neglect the fates and fortunes of his Sailors.
They don’t coddle the Sailors, because they know that leadership is not a popularity contest. They will do the right thing because it is the right thing to do …”
I am certainly not alone in saying I would have been proud to have had Lex as my CO.
Lex inspired his readers to be the best they can be.
He was an observer and commentator on life with all of its hidden joys, lessons, mysteries and occasional sorrows. He had the ability to step outside himself and not only report on others, but himself and still see the humor.
“Dad threw another twenty at me for my efforts. It feels a little weird, frankly. Monday through Friday I’m a US Navy captain, large and in charge. On weekends I get tips.”
Life in a cubicle for years would have been purgatory for Lex.
“When I retired from the service a little over three years ago, I didn’t know what I was going to be when I grew up. Over the course of the last three years, I came to the realization that it was not what I had become. I saw men from other companies a few years older than me trying to gut it out to the next contract, and quietly pitied them.
Monday through Friday paid the bills, but my weekend job of puttering around in a 30-year old piston single, introducing people to the world of “air combat” at 110 miles per hour with a whopping 150 horses under the cowl for $25 an hour felt more like “me” than did my paying gig, complete with the 201K… “
Whether as a student at the USNA – the “Trade School on the Severn”– as he called it – and buying a used Jaguar E-Type – a car that definitely required more passion as a poor student than reason – or flying an old Citabria years later learning how to land tail draggers – he grabbed the opportunities that came his way and savored them.
Compassion for others less fortunate didn’t escape him either, as evidenced when he took his eldest daughter to a thrift store to enable her to have some avant-garde clothes, and noticed a young mother with her child there because that was her only option. The sight weighed on him when he wrote of going there the previous day, and he felt compelled to tell about the sadness the following day.
We all had a ringside seat with him as he reported on his observations. He treated his readers not as distant spectators, but invited friends with him looking out his window. I got the feeling that he considered all of the readers of his blog his friends, unless proven otherwise. Unusual today in the blogosphere, he welcomed civil debate on current events and respected some readers who disagreed with him vehemently.
In fact, he even pointed out that fact to an Internet troll.
“I deal with dissent. Read the comments in this post from a British journalist who disagrees with me on nearly every fundamental point with respect to the war in Iraq. He doesn’t get “censored” – by the way, governments censor, individuals merely express distaste – because he doesn’t come into the discussion imputing bad faith or “cowardice” upon those with whom he disagrees. That’s dissent, rationally expressed and rationally dealt with. That’s how grown ups talk… “.
Whether we were in an FA-18 cockpit doing a night carrier landing or riding with him up the coastal highway seeing the different personalities of small California beach towns, through his writing we were right with him. As someone said, “he painted with his words”.
Even the enjoyment of minute slices of family life didn’t escape him, as he noted one early Saturday morning with his young daughter anxiously waking him up at early dawn worried that she’d miss her horse riding show. Or teaching his eldest daughter the finer art of manual shifting in his beloved BMW and hearing the gears grind, the clutch smoke, with an added trip up to the sidewalk. As a fellow gearhead, I knew that was love on display. He was nearly moved to tears with pride as his son graduated from Naval flight school. And of course, he loved his wife who supported him through absences, moves and deprivations.
“We’d moved every time a tour ended, the world being a wide and wonderful place, and which is fun while you’re young, and the kids are small. But that was 10 changes of station and 13 houses in 19 years… The Hobbit was a first class trooper: In for a penny, in for a pound, and take it where it goes, said she. They don’t much make them like that any more. Looking back on it, to tell you the truth, they very rarely did.”
In one post, he wrote of the difficulty sometimes in “doing the right thing” for your children. It isn’t always black and white, knowing the “right thing” in helping the children you love.
He acknowledged with some pain what he had missed with his family during all the accumulated years he had been absent. Lex showed us the sacrifices countless families make in defending the country. In a just world, they would be awarded National Defense ribbons for their own sacrifices just as those in uniform.
As another person said, “(he wrote of) everyday events of family life but with keen insights”.
We were with him when he coached his son’s soccer team to discover a hidden mystery.
And as a young man, we were with him as he was suiting up for his own soccer game, and he shyly smiled to a passing young lady, which ultimately brought 3 new and unique windows to the universe. He marveled at the wonder and chance at that brief intersection in time that eventually became such a wonderful part of his life.
We also learned about Lex through the people he said he admired. At his top was a Second Class Petty Officer, which told me volumes about the man.
“The best friend I never met…”
Was his term for many of his readers who had respectful conversations with him via his blog. He said that “we learned from each other”. I believe that he truly enjoyed the conversations – and company – he had with the “commentariat”.
“I have learned a lot along the way, and many of you have helped to teach me. I’ve made many friends, only some of whom I have met, or ever will meet. And only, I think, a very few enemies. At least one of whom I have come to think of as a friend, although we have not met and do not share many, if any, of the same opinions about practically anything. I have learned to examine unquestioned certainties.
There are all kinds of addictions, and this became in time one of mine. It took my attention from places that it probably ought to have been better spent. I would like to be able to tell you that I would do everything the same, given another opportunity. That all of this has been worth it. That any of it has made a difference.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m just not sure that’s true.”
Wish I had been around during that time, but all were welcomed at Lex’s place. Just bring civility for each other. And, as I came to believe, in discussions bring your “A” game but also enjoy the camaraderie.
As I came to know him with his website down, I felt that it would be a tremendous loss to have nearly 9 years of these memories of his life, beautiful stories and articulated opinions of issues of the day and proper leadership, gradually recede into nothing with time. We would of course in our small circle remember him but nobody new would come to know him. With time, that circle would shrink to nothing.
“There are no irreplaceable men. If you want to know the hole you leave behind when you go, put your fist in a bucket of water. Now pull it out. There. That’s the hole.”
That might be true as far as workplaces go as Lex thought, but his experiences and the beautiful way he could immortalize them, was irreplaceable.
To have led such a life well lived and not allow the world to share what he experienced and learned in that life would not do.
I felt compelled to give future readers a chance to experience the “lightness of Lex” with a recreation of his site. It wasn’t so much a desire as it was a mission. Something I had to do.
Doing this was the only way I knew how to thank him. Or could thank him.
It was to be in the same chronological order as originally written. There was no definitive completion date beforehand, or a hurry to “get it done”. Selected pieces from advokaat’s files would be reposted in the same chronological order daily, giving people the same enjoyment they had when originally posted.
It’d be complete when I felt it was complete.
I didn’t even consider it to be “work” or drudgery but a joyful task. I was able to give something back for Lex, a man I never physically met but came to know.
A man who managed over time to become “The best friend I never met”.
The amazing thing to me was how much I found. I estimate that we had about 70% (based on his publishing dates, and posts he referenced that we don’t have) of what he wrote. I read the archives of what we did have – a bit over 1.3 million words – 4 or 5 times and each time found things new and worthy of reposting. Lex could even turn the evening chore of walking to get the mail with his dachshund into an entertaining piece.
And then there was his piece called Icarus. He was on a break from his earth bound cubicle job and saw the clouds off in the distant mountains, and he reminisced how he once played in those clouds with his jet while crossing a footbridge at his “cube farm”. I had actually skipped this during my previous 4 passes!
“…I’ve flown low atop altostratus clouds that were perfectly leveled as though some cosmic carpenter had done his lathing there. Sanded it to perfection before stepping away with a satisfied grunt, content. Gray beneath and white on top. Flew 500 knots just atop – just barely – and then lowered my tailhook, dragging it through. Plugging the burners in to climb and look over my shoulder at the secular tracework left behind and acknowledged it a kind of vandalism. A barely forgivable desecration of something vestal. Then dove down to do it again.
I once saw a cloud bank off Oshima that had a western boundary so sharply demarcated that it looked as though it had been carved with a cake knife. Thought it would be a lark to dive down and skim my starboard missile launcher through the wall face. Found to my dismay that sharply defined wall clouds are borne of grossly intemperate turbulence. Helmet striking the canopy, shoulders hurled against the restraint straps. Learned about flying from that, and prodigious forces unreckoned with.
Stepped down the footbridge and into the now.
Was a time.”
My only excuse for missing the above piece in the first 4 passes was that he left us so many other beautiful things! This comparison would undoubtedly get a laugh from him, but I thought I had found a Picasso sketch hidden in a discarded book.
More than one person has compared Lex’s aviation writing to the Lindbergh-era aviation writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and I wouldn’t dispute it.
“…I look at my first entry, way back in October, 2003 . It was pretty clear that I was sticking my toe into the water tentatively, not knowing how it would feel, in there. I am in person a rather private soul. People may know me for years, and not have any idea how I come down on the issues of the day. Unless they ask, I will not volunteer. As a result, I’ve surprised some folks over the years, who think they know me, and ask my opinion on a subject.
So why did I feel that my entries would find any resonance? Did I write for you, gentle reader? Or did I write for me?”
One of my definitions of an artist is one who can see the inner beauty, wonder and humor of everyday life that the rest of us miss, and then is compelled within to reveal that to the world.
By that definition, Lex was an artist.
As I mentioned 9 months into this project, Lex wanted to write a book but could not think of a subject matter. His literary creativity found an outlet via his blog, Neptunus Lex. As I was rebuilding much of his blog, I put what I considered his “best of the best” into an index. By building the index, I wanted new readers to experience his writing on a manageable level. They wouldn’t have to spend hours sequentially sifting through entries to see something that interested them.
The index would show off his best easily accessible to the world. It is arranged chronologically in the same order as he wrote them. About 40%-50% of his other posts that we had are also back on the web but not in the index, under the tag “Best of Neptunus Lex”.
As I was building this index, I came to realize that in addition to his many essays and observations of then current events, Lex was unwittingly writing a book about his own life. His autobiography is not a conventional one with his life story being chronologically arranged, but his stories are all throughout the index. If it is read in its entirety, the reader will come to know him from the time he was 16 in Virginia.
If you want to meet Carroll LeFon, he’s still there waiting to be discovered. Perhaps some future descendants of his will come to know him through this, instead of simply know of him.
Maybe that would be the greatest gift we could give back.
His book ends not with sorrow, but happiness 3 days before his accident with an Early Go:
“At the early brief that morning, one of the TOPGUN instructors asked me when I had been on the staff. Ninety-six to ’98, I told him, adding that I was just thinking of that myself. For the Navy lieutenants and Marine captains had seemed young men back then, back when I was a commander. And that was 14 years ago. The names change, but the faces almost appear the same.
They are at once somber and light-hearted, serious and casual.
Some things have changed, but not the important ones. In the debrief, some trivial bit of buffoonery will require pointed ribbing, and all will take it in good humor. But if there’s something that really needs to be said, and heard, the “who” is removed and the “what” is underlined. No one else might have noticed it, but then again they might have. And everyone learns that way.
They’re hard on themselves; I guess they have to be. It’s the price of excellence. If there’s a deviation from the script, they’ll ‘fess up on themselves, because at least that shows they recognized their error(s). Far better to call yourself out on having made a mistake rather than have someone else call it for you. “Viper 2 came out of block with a visual, but no tally”, meaning the wingman had been in sight but not the foe, a potential safety-of-flight violation. The debrief room can at times feel like something of a confessional.
It’s not absolution they’re after, not really. Not even respect, or recognition. It’s the standard of excellence. The awareness of it, and the desire to asymptotically approach that standard. Knowing that perfection can never be anything more than a goal rather than a destination.
And by God, it’s refreshing.”
I think that’s the ending he’d want in his book.