My Pensacola is Gone!
No; not the beautiful white beaches, or the crystal clear palate of blues and greens lapping at the electric sand. My history, my first hurdles and victories in the crusade for my Naval Aviator Wings of Gold, were gone. My Naval Air Station (NAS) literally had been blown away by the very force of nature we sought to control; the air. I say crusade because it truly was. Many, in fact most, failed and some even perished in their quest. While our quest was individual we charged forward as a class, a cohesive unit with religious fervor, a crusade. Independently we struggled, each with his or her private battle, which for most ended in a personal Waterloo. Mine was navigation, and it nearly de-railed my quest. I kept a list of class mates and would scratch them off like casualties when they fell to the earth. I stopped when I realized of the thirty five or so original class members; the fallen had reached the twenties. They were felled by the sword of: a medical, academic or physical fitness failure. And that was before the carnage of going flight-side. It became too morbid to tally my lost comrades; I put the class roster in a drawer and never looked at it again.
My Pensacola was in my thoughts when I awoke a week ago on a peaceful Sunday in an NAS cottage and set out in search of coffee. Driving past the National Naval Aviation Museum, all was well. Even as I descended the hill paralleling the beach, headed toward Main-side, everything was squared away. The huge century old house my wife and I had lived in, sub-divided for junior Officers, still stood majestically on a hill overlooking the Bay. As newlyweds we would sit on our porch swing, watching the USS Lexington slip through the emerald waters to her pier. Every Wednesday we were awakened by the A-4F Skyhawks of the Blue Angels tearing at the sky using our home as a turn point.
As I passed the exercise trail we ran on and our private beach, I could see the Officers Club. Mustin Beach O-Club; the Ready Room! How many wild Friday nights had been spent there? Too many to count. Young Warriors, in sweat stained flight suits, swilling down beer and talking with their hands. It was pre-PC days; pre-Tail Hook witch hunt days. For us it was innocent yet wild, yin and yang, slamming cool amber beer to force down the hot fear of failure. With jubilant Espirit’ de Corps, we loudly laughed in defiance of the silent Specter of Attrite that hung over the room. Death wasn’t even a consideration; failure was a much worse fate. Some of us achieved the ultimate victory right there, receiving Wings of Gold in that very building.
The stark reality of time and change unfurled before me as I drove past the O-Club; it was all gone. The very battlefields were gone: the obstacle course, the survival training building, the tank that held the Dilbert Dunker of Officer and Gentleman fame, even the giant sea plane hangars, one of which had held the boxing ring, all gone. It was as if my youth and struggle had been washed away in the tidal surge of the hurricane.
All that was left were the sea plane ramps that gently dipped into the bay. Yet they too were empty; the Aviation Officer Candidates were not marching on them with a maniacal Marine DI barking at their heels, as he marched them into the sea. Silence, a deep remorseful silence, was all that filled the ramp and brick buildings that had teemed with motivated Warriors fighting daily for survival in the most competitive occupation in the world.
Starbucks, Starbucks! Right there where the AOC Club had stood. Things change; but not here, not in the Cradle of Naval Aviation.
I put my disappointment aside and settled into a much needed vacation. At least the beaches were unchanged, despite British Petroleum’s best efforts. We enjoyed the clear water and pristine sands of Pensacola, Johnson, and Navarre Beaches. Overhead an occasional naval aircraft pulled at my memory, compelling me to look up and watch. My wife quietly watched me each time, our eyes would meet, she knew. She also missed our past life and no words need be spoken. They could never match our shared memory or feelings anyway.
At mid-week we took our friends to the weekly practice of the Blue Angels, behind the museum. The show was fantastic as always, even though it was the low show due to weather. Our friends loved it, and we enjoyed sharing a bit of our Navy past. Friends since childhood; all four of us had grown up in the same small suburb of Webster Groves, Missouri. As kids we built and raced cars, so the museum with its technological marvels was a natural interest point, especially the old engines that were cut away to reveal their inner workings.
Overhead hung the actual A-4F Skyhawks that used to scorch the roof of our old house. All of my past aircraft were in attendance, perfect; they looked as if I could step in anyone of them and pierce the atmosphere again pushing it to the edge of its envelope and beyond. In the room full of cockpit trainers I couldn’t resist; after the kids cleared out, I jumped in the cockpit of the F-4N Phantom II. Forty years earlier at the Illinois State fair I sat in the same cockpit at the age of twelve. My father asked, “So you think you can handle one of these babies?” I nodded enthusiastically feeling the power in my hands. It was the first and last actual military cockpit I sat in. Even though the mighty Phantom had long been retired from the fleet; I retired within minutes of leaving an F-4N cockpit flying for Naval Weapons Test Squadron, at NAS Point Mugu. The cockpit, seared in my memory at age twelve, was as familiar at age thirty five when I first flew it, as it was now at age fifty two.
We finished the day with a San Miguel beer in the Cubi Point O-Club bar. Cubi Point was a NAS in the Philippine Islands, after Mount Pinatubo blew in 1991 the US presence was pulled out of the PI and the bar moved to the museum intact. I left the USS Midway the year before. The Midway was there so often the carrier pier at Cubi was called Midway pier. The bar and its entire memorabilia, squadron plaques, bar tops and tables, with the names of Naval Aviators carved in them were virtually unchanged. For many this was the place where they had their last beer as they headed for Viet Nam, the Gulf, or the icy waters of the Cold War. I found my name on two, one also held the names of four VAQ-136 squadron mates lost at sea; our Commanding Officer Noel Green, Lieutenants Doug Hora, JC Carter and Hoot Gibson. Time had been literally frozen. I looked around the room at other plaques holding the names of past friends and Air Wing “bubba’s”; even a VT-4 squadron mate from my P’cola days. He had died in a US-3A crash right off the end of the Cubi Point runway, I just happened to be in port when it happened.
The night before we left we had dinner at a restaurant in the Seville Quarter. An area of bars and restaurants that back in the day was full of the white uniforms of Aviation Officer Candidates. It had been the off base hang out of our youth. Ironically, we sat with two couples from back home; one now lived in Pensacola. It was a bit strange; our navy friends were still special to us; having the shared experience that had been punctuated by separation and loss. Yet here we sat with friends from home in our old navy town. Launching the next morning in my trusty Musketeer, I couldn’t help being amused by the fact that the aircraft I used to fly were incapable of slowing to its top speed. After a short stop to visit a friend from VAQ-136 who was closing out his career as the Commanding Officer of NAS Meridian; we headed for home. I had retired from the Navy quite suddenly in 1998, facing orders to a desk, on a ship. I had never really come to terms with my abrupt departure. I had come off of a Detachment to the Western Pacific in the mighty Phantom and days later retired; returning home that weekend and starting a new career. It’s been twelve years and I realize, just now, that last week my wife and I re-lived the entire journey of our Naval Aviation career again. Full circle; I suspect she knew all along.