Somewhere it’s said we are shaped by life’s experiences. Whether those experiences are big or small, each can have its own impact on the soul. Sometimes those experiences can take hold of the imagination in the way a snake would constricts its prey and slowly consume it. Feeling every fiber of that being, tasting where it’s been, and how it got there. Savoring the long slow process and digesting what could be a long interlude to the next consumption. I had such an experience once, as a ten year old boy. It took place on a naval base during a typical hot August day in a small desert town in Ridgecrest California. A town that was hours away from any major California city and sitting just off a gentle cool base of a portion of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It could be a scorching 100 degree heat and all one had to do was take an hour or so drive up the mountain to a comfortable 70 degree picnic.
The base we lived on was the Naval Weapons Station, China Lake, located in the Western Mojave Desert region of California, about 150 miles north of Los Angeles. China Lake is the United States Navy’s largest single landholding, representing 85 percent of the Navy’s land for weapons and armaments research, development, acquisition, testing and evaluation use. In total, its two ranges and main site cover more than 1,100,000 acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. It was a gold mine of history and nature. The majority of the land is undeveloped and provides habitat for more than 340 species of wildlife, including wild horses, burros, Big Horn Sheep and endangered animals, such as the desert tortoise and Mojave Tui Chub. Tui Chub are just feeder fish native to North America; they are the main food source for cutthroat trout in the region. China Lake is also home to 650 plant types. It is far from vast and empty wasteland to be sure.
My father was a Navy vet for 21 years. He was very proud of his job. When I say proud, I mean proud like how proud that fat German kid from Willy-Wonka felt when he pulled a Golden ticket. During the Vietnam War one of my father’s tasks would be the expedient repair of military aircraft to get them off the ground all while taking fire from the enemy. Yet he didn’t like to talk about it. As a matter of fact he would rather tell you about the ignoble toe nails he has from diabetes. My dad loved to talk about his babies. When I say ‘babies’, common sense would say he was talking about myself and my two siblings. No, my dad was talking about his hulking flying rhinos of variable intakes, radar intercept officers, and 2.2 showing on the mach meter strapped to powerful and reliable J79 engines that would fill your nostrils with exhaust until you dropped the canopy. Otherwise known as the F-4 Phantom II. He loved that aircraft.
My Dad would say, “It’s in that seat in that hangar where challenges are met, friendships are forged, and the nation’s will is carried out! “.
I really never understood his infatuation with one particular jet. I mean there were so many cool ones to choose from and with the release of” Top Gun” , I personally thought the F-14 was way cooler. Well, until my dad told me it was nicknamed “Flying Turkey” (when landing, the movement of its control surfaces makes it look like a turkey). So on this one particular summer day, my dad decided he was going to bring me to work. I remember being a little taken aback because I had plans with to eat breakfast with Lucky and the Super Friends, and if I had time, I might have been able to fit Voltron in too. Little did I know or could prepare for what I was about to experience that day.
We loaded into the family Nissan truck with the sun eaten paint job and matching rusted wheel covers and exited out of the compact rows of small homes that were military housing. My father decided to take the long way to work via a scenic desert road. I loved taking drives or biking down the mostly empty roads. I remember looking to one side and seeing hulking majestic mountain ranges peering over cotton stretched clouds. Looking to the other side a tremendous bare canvas of rock, sand, tumble weeds, and the occasional road runner just out of your reach. Every time your eyes wander back to study the distant landscape it seems as if it were merely a projection onto the horizon. It almost feels surreal.
The searing temperature hits you, and has a way to make you look up for relief at the sky and it seems like an impeccable contrast to the ground on which you stand, impassive and blue. It feels as though the gentle eye of God peers down on you, time seems to stand still, and you suddenly feel calm. It is a peace and a respect for the irony of how life flourishing can be suffocated by the radiant light and heat of the desert. It was my playground.
Now as a kid I’ve been in plenty of aircraft hangars and seen a luxury of military aircraft. To say it was “old hat” would be an understatement. I still enjoyed being around it all. The hangers were these colossal barn like structures that housed winged horses capable of raining down death, like Gods of fire from mythical times might rain down destruction. Everything a boy could wish for.
We stopped by the workshop first before entering the main hangar. The shop was no different than what you would see from an auto mechanics shop. Greased tools in large yellow work worn tool boxes labeled with stickers of crude language and half naked women. My Dad never made a big deal over me reading them. He just reminded me not to repeat or speak any of it to front of my mom, “..Because shit flows downhill and I’m not listening to that crap from her today about you…”. Fair enough.
After my Dad had checked in and got his work together we toured through the small and sterile hallway out to the main of the hangar. Now out of body experience, or OBE, is described as usually brief experiences in which a person’s consciousness seems to depart from his or her body, enabling observation of the world from a point of view other than that of the physical body and by means other than those of the physical senses.
That was exactly how I felt when I turned the corner into the main hangar and saw my first F-18 Hornet.
My skin broke out in small goose bumps as the back of my hair stood on ends. There it rested, a leviathan of wing and perfect mechanical beauty. A giant sleeping eagle made of alloy and pride. It’s body more than capable of being the tip of the Greek god Apollo’s arrow. It’s flight true and deadly. The empty canopy, a single eye of a Phoenix. I couldn’t contain my excitement, “Can I see it dad?”, only came out as a whisper as if subconsciously I didn’t want to wake it only to have it fly away in surprise.
“You can sit in it!”, he smiled.
That was the best thing I’ve ever heard my dad say to me, that is, until he told me how proud he was of me before his passing from colon cancer years later in my Adulthood.
At that point I ran up the aircraft ladder so fast that I don’t recall ever feeling the steps below my feet. I could tell my Dad was just as excited for me as he laughed when I put the Pilot’s helmet on.
“Hold on Chad! Let’s get the straps to fit you!”, he said, as I couldn’t keep still looking around in my own ecstasy.
It was like putting a Dixie cup over a marble. I kept pushing it up so as to see out the black tinted visor. The instrument panel overwhelmed my brain and imagination with labels, switches, and random casings. The seat was forgiving and large like a Kings throne. As I grabbed the flight stick and pulled back on it, I imagined this is what Luke felt like in his first X-Wing! Then I surfaced through clouds of childhood imagination. I radioed the tower as they gave me the All Clear. This flight was not an aggression, it was a rider breaking in his steed! We performed barrel rolls, loops, and low pass flybys! I practiced Anti Communist MIG jet maneuvers by what I called, “The Cuban Figure Eight”.
The sun was just starting to reach its highest point in the sky as I had reached the highest point in my boyhood. Oh man, if my friends could see me now! And somewhere below in the speck bare canvas of rock, sand, tumble weeds, and the occasional road runner just out of my reach, my dad smiled and waved to me. Telling me to be careful, that he loves me, and not to stall the engines. I couldn’t make out to where exactly he was, but I could hear him. Laughing and giving instruction, all while letting me dream.