Chapter 1: A Father's Letter
The packet had arrived a few hours earlier, but she had let it sit on her desk by the window. It would be better to open it during the quiet time of twilight, a cup of Earl Gray at hand.
As the sun began to slide behind the mountain she picked up the bone-handled letter opener and slid it under the flap. A neatly folded set of papers fell out, along with a couple of photos, curled at the edges. She set aside the notes and picked up the pictures. Both were old Polaroids.
The first image made her smile. Although a much younger version, there was no mistaking that the man in the photo was her father. The cocky, self-assured, pilot that stared back at her was perched at the top of a boarding ladder. He was in his flight suit, helmet in one hand, gripping the coaming of the his jet with the other, ready to climb into the cockpit. She turned the photo over. In a smeared but distinct hand was written: "Me, USS Constellation, South China Sea, October, 1970. Off to cheat death once again!"
The second photo showed two young aviators; her dad, again, and a slightly shorter, blonder, and very handsome guy. The two had their arms around each other's shoulders, mugging for the camera, huge, unlit cigars sticking out of the corners of their mouths. She flipped this photo, too. It read: "Me and Dave, back from another hot mission killing Commies for Uncle Sam!"
Putting down the photos gently, she picked up the pages, unfolded them, and began reading.
"My Dearest Ariella:
It has been too long since my last visit and for that I do apologize. I miss you very much, and I trust you know that. Let me explain what's going on.
After my last trip, I found out my medical condition has worsened and that I'm deteriorating more rapidly than we thought. I can do nothing about it, and there it is. Money can't buy everything, and, in my case, no amount of it will keep my compromised system from destroying itself.
Imminent death has a wonderful way of focusing your energies. Certainly, at my age, there is more of life in the rearview mirror than the windshield anyway; but, not knowing exactly when the end is coming gives all of us a false sense of security concerning life.
"Doc" Miller is feeding me the pills I need to keep going for as long as I can, but I still feel the strain. There are procedures I could have, but they would only prolong the inevitable, maybe a year. It would keep me in a hospital bed, and I have too much to do to lie around all day. Bad attempt at gallows humor...sorry.
I feel pretty well, considering, but Bill tells me that is typical for this disease: it lurks in the background doing its nefarious work in silence, then--bam!--you're done. The end comes quickly.
There shouldn't be much suffering, though, for which I am grateful. Sorry, I'm digressing again.
My situation has caused me to re-focus my priorities. I have decided on a new path. I have set my feet upon it only after giving it a great deal of thought, including the possible consequences. The bottom line is: the risks feel justified.
You will read a lot about me in the days ahead. Some of it may be good, if I'm lucky, but most of it will be bad, given the nature of our society, craving, as it does, any news concerning the lurid and the shocking. Please give me the benefit of the doubt, and read the letters I will continue to send to you with an open mind--the beautiful mind I know you have.
As I said, finality can generate clarity: With ultimate darkness approaching I have had to come to grips with my innermost dilemmas. The first and foremost of these quandaries is: "What happens next?"
I have come to believe that when our conscious life is over, that's all there is. From nothing we came, and into nothing we will go. A sad prospect, to be sure, and the more I thought about that, the more I realized how crucial it is to treasure each moment of life. Beyond that, though, it is important to live a good life, to be fair and humane, to be just and kind, because this is all we have and it should be the best it can possibly be.
Then I thought, "But what about those who are cruel and evil, the villains who cast aside their fellow human beings with callousness or impunity?" If they die without feeling the sting of retribution or revenge, it will be too late. They will get away with the pain and suffering they have caused. The eternal blackness will wipe their slates clean, as if they had never been. There's no justice in that. What's more, no lessons will be learned for those who are left behind. Everyone should be made to understand that life is sacred and is to be cherished. If we don't live an honest life of service and respect, we deserve to reap the consequences.
I cannot, of course, correct every wrong I have ever seen or experienced in my life, but I began to think that I could take care of a few. I have started with my own trespasses and to the extent that I can, I have made provisions for all of those who have meant the most to me; so, when I am gone, they will have what they need, at least that's my hope. That will be my own mea culpa. This will include you, of course.
As to the rest: the transgressions that are the most meaningful to me are the ones that have been suffered by my fellow Vietnam veterans. No warrior class in our nation's experience has been treated so shabbily, certainly by our leaders, and also by history itself. Even worse, though, we were shafted by some of our own peers, people who should have known better--even did know better. Some veterans betrayed other veterans for reasons of greed, prestige, tiny bits of colored ribbon, negligence, cowardice or sheer stupidity. Some of those misguided souls are dead, of course, and there's nothing I can do about them. But some of them are still alive, and I determined, in a moment of sobering clarity, that they should be made to account for their errors. They owe a huge bill to the rest of us and for that they must be made to settle up. It will be a good example for the rest of America. That's why I have decided to do what I will be doing, and I will continue as long as I am physically able. You may not agree with my reasoning, my goals, or my methods; but, as we used to say back in the 'Nam, "And there it is."
You've always said you wanted to know more about me, especially my younger days, before I met your mother, what my life was like back then. You even gave me a dollar bill--do you remember?--with your signature on it. It was a down payment, you said, on a book about my life. We laughed, but I kept that dollar; I taped it to the glass door of the cabinet in which I keep my favorite books. The book is still not written, and I don't know if it ever will be. It certainly won't be written by me. I've run out of time, but perhaps via these letters and the stories I am appending to them you'll finally get some reimbursement on your dollar.
Here's Part One (enclosed) of my story, reconstructed from my diary notes and the memories I have kept locked away, until now. This is how all it all began.
I have never been the kind of father that you deserved, and I won't make headway in that regard now, but I do want you to know that from the second you were born to the moment that I die, I have loved you.
Lots of love--Your Dad"
Chapter 2:"We Cheated Death Once Again"
The tea was still warm, but so were her tears. She placed the letter aside and picked up the stack of papers labeled: " Part One:"
"Right after I earned my Navy wings I received my final squadron assignment; VF-96, the legendary "Fighting Falcons." When I caught up with them they were deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation, on a combat cruise to the western Pacific, flying missions over Vietnam. With the exception of a few hours on the USS Lexington, where I first tested my ability to land on then take off from a flattop, I had never spent any time on one of these massive ships.
Once I checked aboard, I quickly discovered that an aircraft carrier at sea was never quiet. Even absent flight operations, this oceanic city was awake and restive around the clock. The skin of the metal behemoth quivered with every turn of the giant screws that drove it forward. Water rushed down the sides of the hull and provided a constant background harmonic that defeated any quest for silence. The banging of hammers on metal never stopped. Radios crackled with message traffic 24/7. The sweeps of the beeping radars, the pings of the sonar, the rattling of the dishes in the galley, all converged with the thumps of running feet, muffled conversations, and the occasional raucous laugh or painful howl. The steam that coursed in the pipes hissed constantly, letting all who rode within the belly of the beast feel her prowling. Peaceful repose under these conditions was generally impossible. Most nights, I tossed and turned in my tiny bunk, which was a sliver of space wedged into a stateroom no bigger than the average closet.
One night, about three months into that deployment, my roommate had a watch or some other collateral duty requirement. (We all had secondary jobs; I was the legal officer, for example.) So I was alone in our living space, but then again, I wasn't. The echoes of a near-death experience the previous day, south of Hanoi, were still with me. Worse, I knew I was going back again the next morning. The SAM batteries (stands for "surface-to-air-missiles, but you may already know that) had tried their best to obliterate us and we had done our damndest to smash them in return, but neither side had had much luck.
In any case, that was the first night that I found myself reliving a nightmare as vividly as if I were still in the cockpit. I lay there sweating, as the ship’s air conditioning pumped blasts of frigid air across my face. All I could imagine was that somewhere in the darkness, North Vietnamese missileers were prepping their firing controls at that moment, readying a SAM-8 to fly up my tailpipe and blow my ass out of the sky. I think that night was the beginning of my long dance with PTSD.
I remember that I took a quick shower at midnight--a "Navy shower." The salt water evaporators were on the fritz again. The ship was on water hours, which meant: jump in the shower stall; turn on the tepid water for thirty seconds and get wet; turn off the water; and then lather up. Once sufficiently covered in soap, turn on the water again. Maybe you’ll get lucky and squeeze out sixty seconds of hot water. Rinse and towel dry.
I slept in my flight suit. That saved time in the morning. My boots were by my rack, and my .45 was cleaned, loaded, holstered, and lying on the impossibly small fold-down tray that was supposed to be a desk. I wrote my "dead letter" and left it on my pillow. This was the missive to be included in the box of your possessions they sent home after you were presumed dead. The minutes ticked by like eons but folded themselves into dreaded hours that passed all too quickly.
A Filipino steward finally pounded on my stateroom door, his fist became the portent of doom.
“Pibe-porty-pibe, sir! Time to get up!” he shouted, in his fractured Tagalog-English.
He didn’t wait to make sure I was awake because he had twenty other doors to bang on. I rolled out of my rack and flipped on the light, then fumbled for my boots. Overhead, a loud “bwang!” practically tossed me off the bed. My stateroom was underneath the port catapult. The first tests of the day were underway and the powerful shuttle that acted like a giant slingshot was being fired down the deck to make sure it was in working order.
I splashed some water on my face from the cereal-bowl sized sink, and then it happened again, as it did every time: the tightening of the gut. Would today be the day?
I grabbed my gear and route-stepped to the wardroom. My stomach was heaving with nerves, but I managed to slam down a couple of eggs, bacon, and toast before the flight brief. The worst thing before a mission was the dry heaves. It was always better to have something in your stomach. Mostly it was the coffee I wanted, though: hot, black, no sugar, super caffeinated.
After chow, I loped down the passageway to ops, but ducked into the last head before getting there: one last nervous bathroom trip.
In the briefing room, that earnest little twit, Wilson, the squadron air intelligence officer, went over the mission scenario. He was trying his best to act serious and be “one of the guys.” What the fuck does he know? He dropped out of flight school before earning his wings, then scored a cushy job aboard this giant ship to complete his obligated service without mortal danger to his person. We’ll be dodging missiles in an hour, and he'll be safely back in his stateroom ogling a "Playboy" magazine.
Shut up, Phillips. That’s not fair. It’s not Wilson’s fault he couldn't pass primary flight training and got bilged. Not everyone’s cut out for this life. You’re the one with the “balls of brass,” the shiny gold wings and the hazardous duty pay. This is what you wanted, remember?
I glanced around the ready room. Everyone was accounted for: “Ace,” “Duke,” “Weasel,” “Merman,” “Handy Andy,” “Gomer,” “Willy-Peter,” “Jaws,” and myself, of course, good ol’ “Mad Dog.” Christ, what a stupid handle, “Mad Dog.”
Every pilot had to have a handle. Usually, though, it was something to do with your reputation among your mates. “Ace” was the worst shot in the squadron, so he was “Ace.” The “Merman” practically drowned during the compulsory swim tests. “Willy Peter’s” real name was William Peterman-not hard to figure that one out. “Weasel” was the guy who could always find a way to "weasel out" of all the most onerous duties and worst watches. “Duke” was, by far, our best pilot, a natural-born flier and a John Wayne fan par exemplar; so, who else would he be? “Handy Andy” could fix anything. When he was off duty, you’d find him with the squadron mechanics, swinging a wrench. “Gomer” was a real golly-gee rube who talked like his namesake, Gomer Pyle, and was from--no kidding--a hick town in North Carolina that could have been a stand-in for Mayberry. “Jaws” never shut up unless his mouth was full, and sometimes not even then. It was disgusting to watch.
I could have gone for “Wolfman,” or “Hammer” or even “Snake”--something more manly than “Mad Dog.” Goddamn Trevor Johnson was the one who stuck me with the name. He and I were in NROTC together, and we played football at college. He was a great tailback; I was a second-string safety. My first start wasn’t until junior year. I was excited to be off the bench, and in a Harvard game no less, so I was all over the field. I tackled everyone who came near me. I was so amped up that I barreled into this skinny Harvard guy…real hard. I must have outweighed him by forty pounds. The end result being that I knocked him out cold. I thought I might have killed him. When they finally pulled him on his feet I helped escort him off the field—to the Harvard sideline! The crowd went nuts. After I jogged back to the Yale side, the Coach came over.
I had never seen him lose his cool, not once in two years, but I could tell he was close. He got in my face and hissed, “Well, you’re a real mad dog, aren’t you?”
I wanted to crawl into my helmet. My teammates were snickering and then it erupted, the quiet chant: “Mad Dog, Mad Dog, Mad Dog…” If we hadn't been crushing Harvard 24-0 in the second quarter, it might have been overlooked, but it wasn't. Johnson and I reported to Flight School together and during the first serious happy hour at the Officer’s Club the drinks flowed, the loose lips yakked, and I was at once and forever more in the annals of US Naval Aviation, the “Mad Dog.” When the squadron petty officer in charge of aviation equipment issued my flight helmet: it was pre-painted a gaudy Yale blue and emblazoned across the front, in white, right above the visor were the words” MAD DOG.” A slobbering Yale bulldog decal was slapped on each side of the helmet, too.
Slumped in the ready room seat next to me, all smiles, was “Sweets,” Lt. Dave Constantine, my wingman. Always happy, ever upbeat in the face of doom, Dave became “Sweets.” Dave was a “ring-knocker” which was slang for a Naval Academy guy, but he was a decent soul despite that "deficiency." For reasons I still do not understand, we gravitated to each other from day one. Behind the grin, he was smart, dedicated, sure of himself, ambitious, and true blue-and-gold, right down to his Navy skivvies. He was one-hundred percent loyal to and madly in love with his beautiful wife Caron, a Latin beauty he had met in Panama while on an Academy summer cruise in ’65.
I, on the other hand, was his polar opposite. I couldn’t be “smart,” I had to be “intelligent.” I was completely out of my element amidst these hormonal jet-jockeys, but I hid my insecurities extraordinarily well. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, beyond the Navy—if I would get a chance at life after the Navy. I had married my college sweetheart, but after only two years the fabric of the union was beginning to fray around the edges and temptation was wrestling me.
Where he and I were anything alike, it was in the ambition department: Dave was a straight-arrow, do-your-best Boy Scout. He would get to the top and become an admiral, that was his goal. I was colder, more calculating, opportunistic, also fearsomely competitive but as yet unfocused. His yin matched my yang, and we were inseparable. We became great backstops for one another.
As we sat in the same tense ready room, getting prepared to leap into the sky, Wilson finally finished his brief and we received a weather update. The RIO’s finally strolled in. It was unusual for them not to brief with us, but they had been summoned to another compartment where the tech weenies did their voodoo. It was something about new ECM gear and that was their business, not ours.
RIO's, or "radar intercept officers" in F-4 Phantom lingo, were the real brains behind each flight crew. Pilots were not much more than “stick jockeys." We couldn’t even shoot, at least the missiles, until the backseat guys told us it was OK. The technology had outstripped the abilities of even the best pilots to manage all the whiz-bang gear in the supersonic Phantom; so, while one guy drove the bus, another specialized officer did all the brainiac work from the back seat. Lucky for me, I had the best RIO in the squadron, Lt. Cdr. Tom “Wizard” Wildman.
If you already had an honest-to-goodness last name like “Wildman” why wouldn’t you be called, well, “Wildman?” But, no, Wildman was “Wizard," and a wizard he was. Nobody could find a firing solution, track down an RF signal, or compute a vector faster than the “Wizard.” He was legendary. I was going to lose him, though. He had recently gotten orders to move on to his next duty assignment. He was going to the Naval Warfare Development Center at Patuxent River, Maryland, where he could do his techie routine all day long and invent even better gizmos to blow the bad guys out of the sky. I’d sure miss him and, worst of all, I’d probably get saddled with some nugget replacement who would require time to spool up to proficiency in the back seat.
Wizard plunked his lanky frame down next to me and I could tell by the worried look on his pock-marked, knife-edged, face that something was wrong--very wrong. Dave’s RIO, “Gonzo” Gonzales (no mystery about his handle), sat next to Dave, also looking torqued.
Gonzo leaned over and quietly whispered to us, “We’re fucked, guys.”
Wizard shot him an icy glance which clearly signaled, “Shut up, asshole.”
The door to the ready room flew open and in strode the admiral’s chief of staff, the Air Boss, and our skipper. Someone shouted, “Attention on deck!” and we all leapt to our feet.
One quick glance at the skipper’s florid mug told it all: we were, indeed, about to be screwed. The unusual presence of both the Chief of Staff and the Air Boss were indicators that something “big” was in the offing and we were going to have starring roles in its production.
The skipper strode to the podium. Even though, as a commander, he was outranked by both the captains who had come in with him, the protocol dictated he would speak first. It was his ready room.
“Seats, gentleman,” our CO said grimly. We sat.
“Today’s mission is going to be different…”
“No shit,” said a voice sitting somewhere in the back. The skipper shot whoever it was a withering glance.
“Here it is, guys, and it’s not pretty.”
The overhead lights dimmed as AIO Wilson pulled down a screen in the front of the room and lit off the slide projector.
Commander Hal Warner, our CO, was one of “the good guys.” He was a “hot stick,” one of the best Phantom pilots in the fleet, and he had proven it on two previous WESTPAC deployments. Like Dave he was Academy, Class of ’56. Unlike most fighter pilots, he was short, stocky and bald as a cue ball. What he lacked in stature, however, he more than made up in cojones, which everyone said were as big as bowling balls. He was tough, fearless, and took no nonsense from anyone, but he was fair and decent, and we all loved him.
The slides flickered to life and showed some grainy views, probably taken by one of the photo recon birds. It looked suspiciously like the territory we had flown over yesterday.
“Most of you guys saw this area yesterday.” (Yup. I was right.) “And you will undoubtedly recall we picked up some highly unusual electronic intercepts that caused us a shitload of trouble, screwing up our ECM (electronic countermeasures gear) and such. The techies over in Saigon have decided we’re up against some new jammers and maybe even some new anti-air defense systems. It's equipment we haven’t seen before.”
The slide projector clicked ahead to the next slide. It was an infrared image of some vehicles moving down a trail in the jungle.
“Last night’s recon bird picked up this shot,” the skipper went on, “and it appears to be a long line of trucks moving into the same area. The bad news is they have been identified as missile carriers. About a dozen of them.”
Groans went up from the aviators.
“So, gents, what we’re looking at is the possibility the NVA have set up between six and eight new missile batteries in our assigned target area.” More moans and a couple of low whistles. My sphincter tightened by half.
“Making matters even more interesting is that the gook bastards have positioned two of those new batteries--here,” the projector clicked ahead, to show a large, bulky concrete building that looked to be three stories tall. “This, gentleman, as you can see by the big red cross painted on the roof, is a North Vietnamese hospital.”
The images zoomed in even closer to show a bunch of little ant-like figures, in reality NVA missileers, setting up batteries--at least two-- on the hospital’s front lawn and another one centered on the rooftop, ten yards from the “red cross.”
“Due to the current ROE (Rules of Engagement) you are not allowed to bomb hospitals, even gook ones,” the skipper stated dryly.
“Hey, skipper! Maybe that’s not a cross. Maybe it’s a big red ‘X’ for us to use as an aiming point!”
The room broke out in hoots of laughter. A tight smile even crossed the CO’s face.
“Nice try, Murkowski, but if you drop some iron on this target you’re the one who’s gonna need a hospital after I get through reaming your ass.” More laughter.
“The Skyhawks and the Intruders are going to do the heavy lifting today, gentlemen. Two sections will be dropping bombs on the bridges and supply roads leading into this valley, shown here, and two more sections will target the missile batteries. Our job is depressing missile fire by dropping bombs on the first pass then loitering in the area, flying CAP (combat air patrol), until the bombers are clear. Let's hope the NVA will be stupid enough to send up some MIGs to tangle with us. If they do, let's ruin their day."
This comment generated howls of delight and cheers. Every one of us wanted to take a crack at a MIG. It's what fighter pilots were trained to do; but, the Peoples Air Force only had a few dozen Russian made fighters and they used them sparingly.
"You’ll be flying low cover going in," the skipper went on, "three to five thousand feet, and you’ll have mixed loads of missiles and bombs. Bombs first, then missiles if you develop any targets for same. Two of you, Murkowski and Davis, will carry napalm, in case we can make some crispy critters. If there aren’t any questions, I’m going to turn it over to the Chief of Staff.”
There were no questions.
The skipper stepped back from the rostrum and asshole extraordinaire Captain Miller Childs, Carrier Air Wing Chief of Staff, stepped up to the mic. Childs was a relentless self-promoter, a bullshit artist of the first order, and only a mediocre pilot, at best. His sole ambition in life was to gain stars on his collar and he was on the inside track to getting them, to everyone’s disgust. He had the Admiral’s ear and his wife was the Secretary of the Navy’s sister; so, despite his lack of piloting skill and the love of his troops, he had the political connections necessary to gain his ambitions.
“Well, men,” he barked out, "this is going to be an historic day. We have the chance to put a hurting on these gook bastards, and I want you to know the Admiral will have his eyes on all of you. Do your jobs right, which I’m sure you will, and there could be some Air Medals waiting for you when you get back. Who knows? Maybe even a DFC or two.”
Someone sneezed in the back of the room; it sounded suspiciously like “Horseshit.” The Chief of Staff frowned. He was not amused. Politician that he was, he could sense he did not have the room, so he wisely wound up his patronizing remarks quickly.
“So, that’s it, then. Good luck to you all. Good hunting. I’ll be on deck to greet you when you get back.”
No doubt he would--especially if the mission was anywhere near successful, in which case he’d be grabbing the glory. If it wasn’t a clean strike, he’d be the first in line to dole out the blame, so no dirt stained his shirt. The word was he had a little hottie, a Public Affairs Officer, stashed away ashore writing his bloated press releases between their sweaty trysts. He did seem to make a lot of unnecessary trips off the boat to “consult” with MACV Staff in Saigon. That’s how he obtained the majority of his required flight hours: taking hops to Tan San Nhut. He wasn’t flying any real combat missions, that was for sure. The story around the air wing was he’d finally gotten an Air Medal for taking a quick detour into a hot zone. There wasn’t any contact or enemy activity, and he didn’t drop a bomb or fire a round, but it was recorded as a “combat mission” for which he received an individual “strike/flight” medal for “bravery.” He’d gotten his Purple Heart in a similar fashion: he was peppered by flying glass and debris when the NVA lobbed a rocket into the “O” Club at Cam Rahn Bay. That, in Childs' mind, constituted being “wounded in action" so he had his deputy write up orders to that effect. He picked up a medal most guys had to lose a limb to get; or, worse, sent home in a metal box.
Fortunately, officers like Childs were not common in the Navy but they weren’t unknown, either; or, maybe it was that war. It was the only war we had at the time, however, so we had to make the most of it. It was a war that was particularly tough on aviators, especially fighter pilots. A fighter pilot lives and breathes to duke it out mano-a-mano with fighter jocks on the other side. Pulling “g’s,” twisting and turning in the clouds, lobbing missiles at the other guy, exuding testosterone, and living to tell tales in front of bevies of beautiful women was what it was supposed to be about. As I mentioned, though, only on rare occasions would the North Vietnamese send up their MIGs to do the dance. As a result, most fighter squadrons were relegated to flying close air support missions or shepherding their “little brothers,” the A-4 and A-6 attack aircraft, on bombing missions.
The F-4 Phantom was a superb fighter, but it was reclassified early in the war as a “fighter-bomber;” so, we lugged bombs. And napalm. We also loitered a lot, at altitude, waiting for something to happen. Occasionally, we demonstrated we could fly at treetop level and scare the piss out of the enemy as we roared by at velocities near the speed of sound. On the day I'm describing, we dropped bombs and then hung around to see what else the NVA might want to throw at us. There was a problem, though: fighter pilots didn’t like dropping bombs. It required us to fly a vector toward a target which meant, for the most part, straight and level flight, zeroing in on a fixed point, waiting until you could pickle your load and then get the hell out of Dodge (as in “Dodge City,” an old expression for getting out of the way). Flying straight and level was anathema to a guy who had been trained to bob and weave, jink and dive, and flip and roll all over the sky. It also gave the bastards on the ground time to put you in their crosshairs. Not fun, but, what were we going to do? Orders were orders.
That day we had the added distraction of an enemy with a new means to screw with our defenses and our minds. We put on our brave faces and our false bravado and pretended it didn’t faze us. It was likely that by the end of the day several of us would have pissed our flight suits—or worse—but only the stewards in the bowels of the ship doing the laundry would ever know.
The only operation I had ever had before that point in my life was getting my tonsils and adenoids removed. I was twelve. It was scary, the worst part being the horrid rubber mask slipping over my face followed by the drip-drip-drip of the ether. I can still smell that ether today. I tried to fight it, and it made me choke.
My childhood trauma resurfaced every time I put on an oxygen mask. As soon as I smelled the rubber, I gagged and the first intake of oxygen always had a tinge of ether, even though I knew it was not possible for that compound to be in the system.
I remember the day being bright and clear but hot as hell. The outside temperature at daybreak was already over 80 and scheduled to be 110° by noon. I was roasting in the cockpit with the sun beating down through the Plexiglas. No matter how much air the Phantom’s two giant GE engines pumped through the system, it was not enough. By the time I was situated on the catapult, I was soaked. The greasy bacon I had unwisely wolfed down with soggy eggs was twisting in my gut. The sour taste of black coffee and stomach acid crawled up my throat. The aircraft rumbled and vibrated below my butt in synch with the roiling of my innards.
The yellow shirted crewman in front of my aircraft was waving at me. It was my turn to move onto the port catapult. Gently nudging the throttle forward, the big plane began a slow roll. I squeezed the nose gear steering button on the control stick and gently tapped the rudder pedals. The plane handler’s signals helped me steer the nose wheel bridle to the catapult's collar. Once aligned I felt a metallic grab which meant I was locked onto the powerful piston that would fire us down the deck and fling us into the sky. We were committed. There was no turning back.
“Showtime one-niner, Flight, prepare to launch,” a disembodied voice burst into my headset.
“Flight, Showtime one-niner, ready and all systems go,” I replied back automatically.