Last week, from his windowless cubicle at the Pentagon, Dustin forwarded me an essay our friend Frank, whom we know from flight-school days, wrote for the U.S. Navy War College website.
“I spend my days sequestered in a dismal pooka only to churn out mindless reports of barely readable administrivia,” Frank writes. “(At the end of the day), I proceed to my truck to enjoy at least an hour and a half of bumper-to-bumper traffic ... I will be getting up at 0600 the next morning to repeat the rinse cycle I call duty in Washington, D.C.”
I can absolutely hear Frank’s voice as I read. I can also hear his laugh — loud, from the belly, and totally infectious. However, despite the brilliant and amusing descriptions, the reality is that I don’t recognize this man who just 14 years ago played a major part in many of my favorite memories.
It seems like yesterday when Frank leaped out of his apartment wearing only sweatpants and an old T-shirt, with a broom raised above his head like an ax to get rid of a snake on our front steps. Dustin was on base finishing up a flight.
Later that night, the three of us went down to Flounder’s on the beach for drinks and a late dinner. Frank’s laugh echoed through the bar as he and I recounted for Dustin our run-in with the snake.
This is how I remember our time in Pensacola, Fla. The guys were in the best shape of their lives, and we were all young and without a routine. Sometimes, Dustin flew at night, sometimes early in the morning or in the afternoon. We spent his days off at the beach. Often, I went to an open field in nearby Pace, Fla., to watch his T-34 fly overhead.
Back then, I pitied the older commanders who had to leave Flounder’s early to relieve baby sitters. I didn’t envy their monotony or the beaten-down looks on their faces. Their bellies had grown wider and their steps slightly less eager. It was as if time — deployments, power-points, pookas — had sucked the life out of them.
But Dustin and Frank — well, they were the spitting image of Zack Mayo in “An Officer and a Gentleman.” There was so much ahead of them. They were living off the adrenaline of flight and an insatiable desire to serve their country.
Now I’m reading about Frank’s “hamster wheel of reality” and his anger at morning rush-hour traffic?
This is largely Frank’s point in the article. He’s gone from the enviable and exciting life of an active Navy pilot to a “midcareer lieutenant commander stationed in the beltway.”
In other words, Frank is flying a desk. So is Dustin. I can’t remember the last time either of them flew an airplane, and they are not yet 40 years old. They’ve become the “older commanders.”
Until my dad retired from the Navy in 2004, I said that he was a Navy pilot, too. But the fact is, he hadn’t piloted an airplane since probably 1990. He’d been flying a desk, and sometimes driving an aircraft carrier, for a much longer time.
In February, when he took my boys to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., he showed them the actual A-4 he used to fly, which is on display there. But I don’t think my youngest son, Lindell, who is named after my dad, fully understood. For as long as Lindell has known “Pop,” he’s had an office, a desk and a cellphone clipped to his belt.
Lindell told me, “Pop showed us an airplane at the museum.”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s the actual plane he used to fly.”
Lindell looked confused. “It’s the plane that who used to fly?” he asked.
It made no sense to him that the pilot was Pop.
In other words, the window for being an exciting Navy pilot is exceptionally short and narrow. I wonder how well recruiters relay this fact? Soon enough, the reality of a different type of military sacrifice and commitment becomes clear, with less perks and more dedication required. There is beauty in this, too.
In his essay, Frank said that his 3-year-old son wants to be in the Navy, too, despite never having known his father during what we would call his more glamorous Navy days.
“Suddenly my station in life improves,” Frank writes as he reflects on his son’s desire. “The grey windowless box I work in transforms into a nerve center of naval intelligence, and I am now an integral cog in the wheel of the machine that drives this global force for good.”
But Frank is puzzled. How can his son ultimately want this 9-to-5 grind at a windowless pooka? “Perhaps,” he writes, “the one percent of the country serving in uniform (passes) the tradition down like a shop owner,” and “the aroma of service permeates through the offspring of America’s fighting men and women like the odor of the boat clings to a flight suit.”
I don’t remember Frank being so grown-up and mature over beers at Flounder’s. Airplane pilot or desk pilot, he’s still one of my favorites.
Sarah Smiley is a Navy spouse and author of “Shore Leave,” a nationally syndicated column.