Officers and Men
Life, Death, and Jet Planes
Even when casually walking, both managed to look like they were marching in formation. At first glance they might have been dressed the same—starched khakis with creases straight as a gun barrel, caps tilted at a jaunty angle but still well within regulations. Close up, however, the differences were obvious. His cap had a gold band with an eagle in the front; my father’s cap got by with a black band and an anchor in the center. His shoulders sported boards with two gold stripes; my father could only claim small gold anchors on his collar. He was an officer and wore the wings of a navy pilot; my father was a hard-boiled navy chief. Between them stretched the impassable gulf that has always divided officers from enlisted men in every military organization that ever existed.
One thing they shared—both looked woefully out of place in my fifth-grade classroom, as did the other parents in attendance. Today was career day, when we got to learn what some of our classmates’ fathers did for a living. But as I looked at all that gold, the last thing I wanted my class to hear about was my father’s career. Anything would have been preferable—a pink slip to the principal’s office, stomach eruptions warranting a visit to the school nurse. At some point during the previous summer I’d crossed the threshold into those years when both my parents had become a supreme embarrassment simply for existing. With additional evidence of my father’s unworthiness about to be placed clearly on display for the gawking amusement of my entire class, I had no viable options. Hiding under my desk would have been silly. Jumping out the window far too melodramatic. I was, it appeared, doomed.
* * *
Here’s something I knew about my father from an early age—
He was three months into his senior year in high school when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. That January he dropped out and lied his way into the navy; they’d lost 2400 men the previous month and weren’t too concerned with age requirements.
Four years later he came back home and picked up where he’d left off. When he graduated in the spring, he took with him a yearbook filled with affectionate references to “The Big Senior.” This told you all you needed to know about him—he finished what he started, he had a clear sense of his priorities, and nobody, it seemed, disliked him.
It would be years before I was able to cull those qualities out of the general narrative that defined him for me, and a few more years after that before I was ready to acknowledge their value. But my ten-year-old perspective allowed neither analysis nor objectivity. Both my own life and the lives of my parents were accepted at face value. My father was a sailor. I couldn’t imagine a time when he hadn’t been in the navy.
* * *
He was Candy Hartwig’s father, this crisp, polished pilot with his wings and his gold bars.
At the beginning of the school year, one of Candy's friends collared me in the lunch line and confided in a conspiratorial whisper that Candy “liked” me. Keep in mind, fifth grade is the year that men everywhere recall with a grimace, a time when, without warning, all the girls, all at once, had it all worked out—all of it—beneficiaries through some mystic, extra-dimensional osmosis, of a received wisdom denied us males. For us, the sacred revelations took a much more haphazard form, a disinformation scheme that blended fact, fiction, fantasy and pure lies into a morass that prevented a clear consensus on what “it” even entailed. Despite much posturing to the contrary, we had nothing worked out. So, of course, I greeted this divulgence the way any fifth grade boy would. I did nothing. Absolutely nothing.
While I kept doing nothing as the year progressed, some strange conspiracy of fate threw us into continual proximity: a duet sung in the fall pageant; debate team partners at the citizenship assembly; hall monitors on alternating Thursdays. We never so much as exchanged a personal thought, scarcely conducted what could be termed a conversation beyond the functional requirements of the moment. Yet, we remained in nervous orbits around each other, not quite interacting, certainly not strangers. But while I was slow to take action, I certainly thought about her. A lot. Unfamiliar thoughts. Joyous, adrenaline boosting thoughts. Thoughts of wondrous possibilities I could scarcely form into images.
Now, as her father rose to speak, I felt the same gulf opening between Candy and me that divided our fathers. If she’d previously been unapproachable and unfathomable, she now became unattainable, with the full strength of the United States military to enforce the prohibition.
* * *
One afternoon, Mark Madsen, a friend of mine from the neighborhood, came over and we spent some time browsing through my father’s cruise books. He'd circled the globe three different times, back in the early post-war years when our country showed the flag in any port she desired. Mark’s father had just shipped out on the aircraft carrier Forestal, one of the ships on which my father had toured ten years earlier; Mark wanted to see where his father would be living for the next two or three years.
Later we discovered, buried under the heavy volumes, a photo album—smaller, less official- looking, with stiff black pages half-crumbling to dust, on which dim, yellowed prints were mounted with dried curls of scotch tape. A younger, thinner version of my father was the focus of most of the photos, along with palm trees, beaches and gorgeous island girls wearing skimpy halter tops, gaudy-print skirts and flowers in long dark hair that draped intimately over whichever of his shoulders they happened to be leaning against.
My father was in the kitchen, polishing his shoes. He’d been at it for half an hour and showed no signs of exhaustion. I naively asked, “When were these taken?”
When he saw the volume, his left eyebrow frowned and his right eyebrow arched, usually a clear signal that whatever I said next, I’d best choose my words carefully.
“I’ll be damned... where’d you find that?”
My mother, hovering nearby, gave our discovery a familiar, if frosty, glance. “I thought you threw that away.”
Later, Mark said, “Looks like your dad had fun during the war.”
* * *
Navy families occupied over half the houses in our small sub-division. They came and went, faces swapped out like titles on a movie marquee. As tours of duty ended, fathers hoisted duffle bags onto their shoulders and returned to the sea. Some wives stoically remained behind with their children, while others, like hungry, migratory birds, packed up and trailed after the fleet. We were a disorganized community of wandering strangers, united by Navy life but not much else.
Sanford was a small town in central Florida that had once been known as “The Celery Capital of the World,” until a freeze in the late 50’s obliterated the crop. Most of the farming these days took place in raw orange groves that, in these pre-Disneyworld years, printed a pattern of green dots over the vast stretches of undeveloped acreage. But the U.S. Navy was the town’s true business and primary reason to exist. N.A.S. Sanford, the naval air station around which our lives had gathered, was home to Attack Wing 7, a vast engine preparing to drive the war that was already gathering itself in countries we’d scarcely heard of: Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam. But we had no time for that. We just knew that fighter jets were the most exciting things imaginable.
They flew every five minutes or so, day and night, each defining a long, lazy circle around the town, landing, then, like piano students working a scale, repeating the exercise over and over. When they were just about to take off, the pilots opened their engines full-throttle, keeping the brakes on until, at last, physics would not be denied and the massive machines hurtled down the runway, plucking an improbable aerodynamics out of thin air to lift their bulk skyward. We lived six miles from the base but the thundering turbines sounded like a gateway to hell had opened up a block away. You got used to it after a while, more or less, but you never forgot that the jets were there.
* * *
From the back of the classroom, Johnny Landreau asked Candy's father, “What do you do all day?” Johnny never studied and got straight A’s. I think we bored him.
Lieutenant Hartwig was about to answer, but just then a jet flew directly overhead. Conversation always paused at such moments. As it passed, he glanced toward the heavens and said, “It never sounds that loud up in the cockpit. Sorry about that.”
Then he said, “Tell you the truth, we pretty much fly around in circles. Same stuff, day after day. We have to practice all the time, so we’ll be ready.”
Questions about what, precisely, he was getting ready for were deflected, until Johnny Landreau once again piped up from the back, “You drop bombs, right?”
“If those are my orders, yes.”
Silence from Johnny. Then, “Cool.”
* * *
In the beginning, the jets were A3D Skywarriors, which to my untrained eye resembled miniature B52 bombers, like I’d seen in Dr. Strangelove. I suppose their silhouettes were superficially similar, but the A3D was by no means sleek; their pilots nicknamed them “whales.”
One Saturday my brother and I were working in the yard with our father. We were supposed to be watering the lawn but spent more time soaking each other and Mark, who’d been hanging around a lot more since his father left.
“Never saw that one before,” Mark said, pointing skyward.
We followed his gaze and there, as if the clouds parted offering a revelation of an unimagined future, we saw what could only be described as a furious dart aimed straight at the heart of the earth, a craft as different from the A3D as a Corvette from an Edsel. Swept-back wings, sharp needle-nosed tip, it dropped like a vicious bird-of-prey swooping down upon a hapless rodent.
“Holy Christ,” said my father, “I hope he knows what he’s doing.”
And still the jet fell, if anything faster than before. Would it crash? Were we about to witness disaster? Finally, when it seemed there was no time left, the pilot pulled out of his dive, angled sharply around and, flying lower than we’d ever seen any jet fly, shot straight over our neighborhood.
We were thrilled, cheering and clapping. We’d just witnessed something new and wonderful and totally unexpected—a changing of the guard. It was the A3J Vigilante and it would become the plane of choice for Attack Wing 7. For us, it was like a science fiction movie come to life, proof of technology’s inexorable push forward, and thus, by definition, a thing both great and good. While these were the waning years of our country’s unquestioned supremacy, our vision did not extend to the turmoil in the streets, the doubts, the national angst, all safely locked away in the future. At that moment, America still ruled the world and one of the reasons had just screamed past us.
My father shook his head in disgust. “Reckless sonofabitch,” he said. “They’ll ream him a new asshole for that.”
* * *
Our neighborhood was arranged in a loose horseshoe pattern off the main highway. I rode my bike constantly from one tip to the other, mostly to be seen by Elaine Solter, another subject of frenzied fantasies to whom I seldom actually spoke; but I made sure I passed in front of her house as often as possible.
It was on one of those passes that I had to swerve to make room for a large, dark-blue sedan with tinted windows driving slowly down the street. As it passed me, I saw UNITED STATES NAVY in small gold letters stenciled on the door. The car pulled into the Keller’s driveway. Tom and Ken Keller were both younger than me, but we all were part of the same gaggle of youth thrown together by circumstance. They were features of our daily life, neither questioned, evaluated, nor particularly noticed at all.
When the two officers wearing full-dress blues stepped out of the sedan, all that changed.
* * *
When Candy’s father finished his talk, Steve McClain’s dad told us about driving trucks.
Billy Smith’s dad worked in a bank, a fact that seemed to interest no one. Including Billy’s dad.
Then it was my father’s turn.
My first thought, when he began to speak—Stop trying to sound so friendly, like you know everyone, like we’re all buddies. I wanted him to sound more professional. More like... a pilot.
“Lieutenant Hartwig gave you all a good description of his job, and how important it is,” he said, “but no one in the Navy works alone. We have 3000 men on the base, and they all are there to make sure that when pilots go up in the air with their jets, they come back safely. We have mechanics, electronics experts, all kinds of people who make sure that the mission is accomplished. All those guys get hungry. That’s where I come in. My job is to feed ‘em. I run the galley, and if I don’t do my job, a lot of men are going to get really annoyed.”
I scarcely took a breath. I dared not look right nor left. The secret was out. Some fathers flew jets. My father was a cook.
* * *
The street in front of the Keller’s house soon overflowed with dark-blue sedans. I rode my bicycle slowly past and saw a room crowded with gold braid and brass. Tom and Ken's mother, Marge, stood by the window amid the crush of well-wishers. Word spread fast, and now neighbors were ringing the doorbell, offering words of sympathy, wanting to assist if possible. A real event had intruded on the monotony of everyday routine; everyone it seemed wanted a piece of the excitement.
Mr. Keller hadn’t been a pilot, hadn't even been an officer. He was an enlisted man, like my father. But he’d been “going places,” they said. He had a “high-demand job,” they said. He would probably have gone to officer’s candidate school eventually, they said. No one seemed to know what he actually did, only that it was important, that he was part of the flight crew.
When the jet flamed out, everyone ejected. “You could tell from the angle of his head, as he was coming down, that he’d broken his neck,” they said.
* * *
My father spoke of mixing bowls that came up to your waist; of whipping up enough mashed potatoes to take a bath in; of ovens that baked forty chickens at a time.
“And all of it gone in less than an hour. That's a lot of hungry guys.”
Then Johnny Landreau asked, “Were you ever in a war?”
He skipped a beat before answering, but I was probably the only one who noticed.
“Yep. I was machine gunner on a PT boat in the South Pacific.”
I felt my classmates sit up a bit and take notice.
“Did you kill anyone?” asked Johnny.
“I pulled the trigger. People fell. Maybe it was me, maybe the guy next to me. It was always crazy. None of us knew what was happening.”
* * *
Marge Keller and her two sons were the center of attention for a week or so. Neighbors brought food and spent hours at a time in attendance. Mark and I took the boys with us to a football game.
Eventually the novelty wore off. Then, a few months later, a Porsche began parking in the driveway overnight, and Marge’s reputation crashed faster than her dead husband’s jet.
The new boyfriend was a real pilot, they said.
* * *
My father’s PT boat squadron was based at Tulagi, in the Solomon Islands, the same base where President Kennedy had been stationed. My father’s boat was PT-105; Kennedy’s was PT-109. That was also the name of the movie they made of Kennedy’s wartime exploits. My father and I went to see it the day it was released.
“Do you remember him?” I asked when we were leaving the theatre.
“Not much. He was just some rich banker’s kid, a hot shot who got his boat sunk. We heard he’d been rescued, but didn’t pay much attention. When he went into politics, then they turned him into a hero.”
Officers who got their boats sunk made life extremely difficult for guys like my father.
* * *
Shortly after Christmas, the dark-blue sedans with their soft-spoken, respectful messengers pulled up in front of Mark’s house. A jet returning from a bombing exercise had lost control at the last second and took out half the deck crew, sweeping them overboard before bursting into flames and crashing into the water after them. Because his father was no longer stationed on the base there wasn’t the crowd that had turned out for Mr. Keller, but a proper level of attention nonetheless was paid. Death likes to be taken seriously. The Navy, I was learning, was only too eager to accommodate him.
Mark disappeared for a week while his father was buried at Arlington. He reappeared for a brief, awkward time, but by the end of the month he was gone for good, another navy life that briefly overlapped mine, never to be encountered again.
* * *
In March, the high school baseball team was holding after-school practice. As eyewitnesses later told the story, they first thought a new maneuver was being practiced in the sky, a Vigilante and a Skywarrior coming close, closer, then pulling away at the last second.
It wasn’t a maneuver; it was a mistake. The Skywarrior’s wingtip sliced effortlessly through the Vigilante’s belly, breaking off just before they both exploded. The baseball team had less than thirty seconds to flee before debris began dropping from the sky. The wreckage fell into left field, then exploded again. The whole area reeked of jet fuel for a month. It would be a year before the scar was smoothed over and the field once more used for baseball practice.
* * *
My father’s tour of duty in Sanford ended in 1966 and he reported to the USS Okinawa, a helicopter carrier plying the waters off South Vietnam. In the morning he fed the marines breakfast. Then the helicopters would lift them to whatever combat zone was scheduled for that day. At night he stored the bodies of the unlucky in his meat locker.
* * *
Rudy Johnson appointed himself the bearer of bad tidings. He performed his job with relish as each new student walked onto the school grounds. “That crash yesterday... Candy’s dad was one of the pilots.”
As I walked to class, an unfamiliar bubble of silence enveloped me. The surrounding world had suddenly become irrelevant noise, an inconvenience to be filtered out. I foundered in that region lurking just behind the thin curtain of daily life, its timelessness defining a stark, vacant landscape where change has ceased and all events turn infinite.
I found myself in the middle of a news story, something I’d heretofore experienced only as headlines in the paper or thirty-second summations on TV. But this intrusion of the outer world into my private life couldn’t be paraphrased. There were no words for it. Mr. Keller and Mark Madsen’s father were abstractions, ideas that I understood but didn’t necessarily feel. None of us were particularly close. We just happened to wander over the same terrain at the same time. Candy, however, was personal.
Miss Gillis, our teacher, did her best. She set aside lessons to give us a chance to talk about what we were feeling. I don’t know what she expected. We were ten years old. We had no idea what we were feeling, and no language to express it, so we said the kind of things that we thought our parents might say, that we’d heard on television and movies. At least it kept us focused on this world instead of those nameless entities that had just been set loose in our lives, those dark shadows of chaos and fear waiting just beyond reach, always a threat, of course, though seldom encountered but in moments of crises like this.
Then the classroom door opened and Candy Hartwig walked in.
* * *
If and when the time came to invade Japan, my father had no illusions about the role planned for him. The PT boats would race into Tokyo Bay and sink as many ships as they could until they ran out of torpedos and their flimsy, plywood hulls got blasted out of the water.
The bombs that vaporized Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused him not the slightest flicker of revisionist remorse.
* * *
Candy looked frail but familiar. Miss Gillis walked over to her and drew her close with a motherly hug.
“Darling, we didn’t expect to see you today.”
Candy nodded. “I can’t stay long... but...”
None of us knew what to do next. This was no time for arithmetic books.
Then Candy handed Miss Gillis a letter, which she read. “Would you like me to pass it around?”
Candy nodded, and so each of us took a turn looking at the letter. While I waited for it to reach me I stared at Candy. I needed to decipher the thin, mirthless smile so carefully held in place, the eyes fixed on a private horizon well past our own sight. It is on the faces of the living that Death etches his handiwork, and I saw then that Candy had ceased to exist, that whoever would replace her had yet to take form. This figure before us was a wraith with no substance, not a person but a process of transition.
Then the letter passed to me. It was typed on the official letterhead of the base captain.
On behalf of the officers and men of N.A.S. Sanford, I offer you our deepest sympathy and condolences for your loss. Know that your father’s sacrifice was in the highest tradition of service to his country...
It felt cold, like a tombstone, an artifact from the realm of Death, horribly misplaced in our own time. I knew nothing in that letter related in any way to what was happening here in this classroom and I passed it on.
Before Candy left, I needed to say something to her. Nothing was clear in my head but that didn’t matter. “I’m sorry,” is what came out. It sounded weak but it was true. She couldn’t say much but she nodded once more and her fixed smile turned a bit more genuine. “Your dad... he seemed like a good guy.”
And then, with the awful finality of that past tense statement hovering like smog, her mother came for her and she was gone. The next time I saw her she was someone different.
* * *
When I got home that afternoon, I assumed Rudy Johnson’s role, the bearer of bad tidings, the crier of doom.
“That pilot who came to school on career day was flying one of the planes that crashed yesterday,” I said.
My mother reacted with predictable motherly noises. “Oh, my goodness. That’s awful. He seemed like such a nice man. It’s hard to believe...”
My father winced, said “Damn,” and turned to look out the window.
I don’t know what he was seeing in that moment—flags unfurled and whipping in the breeze, or perhaps draped reverently over coffins as a bugle sounds Taps; men standing in precise formation, or screaming in blind panic as flames consume them; or perhaps simply looking out at that same horizon Candy had discovered, gazing across a barren plain, empty save for the lone figure of Death, patiently waiting.
I wanted to do something fun. I wanted to ride my bike, go swimming, find a friend and invent a stupid game. I had already granted Death more time than a ten year old should be called upon to offer. I was tired of his blue sedans, his quiet, somber emissaries. I’d seen his signature in the eyes of my classmates, the transformation in faces no longer familiar, and now I wanted to set him aside and be done with him. But as I looked at my father, saw exhaustion, sadness and, just possibly, a hint of tears in his eyes, I knew it would never be that simple. We don’t get to shirk the paths we choose, nor the ones that are chosen for us.
He saw me studying him and responded with a crooked, embarrassed smile. He patted my shoulder.
“You have to believe it’s worth it,” he said.
It’s a rough bargain we strike, and ruthlessly unfair. But it’s the only one offered us. To savor the light, we make peace with the shadow, embracing such comrades as we are granted, erecting monuments to the fallen as we go, preserving their faces for whatever short time memory permits.
About the Creator
Writer, image retoucher, musician/composer, 3D artist. Despite modest success in all those fields, Photoshop paid the bills.
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