"Sometimes you're the windshield.. sometimes you're the bug" - lyrics, Mary Chapin Carpenter song
Standing in formation at dusk outside the hangar, I felt the rivulets of sweat pool into the delta that was the small of my back. Lines of dungarees - half powder-blue, half blue jean - lined up in neat rows behind me. As the sweltering heat finally gave way to limp stickiness that clung to our skin, the floodlights flickered on, and so did the mosquitoes’ taste for blood. Yet,
at first everyone seemed to just “grin and bear it.”
But, as the commanding officer who reminded me of Ned Flanders from the Simpsons droned on about something that seemed important enough at the time to announce in front of the entire squadron, these flying syringes poked through our starched poly-cotton uniforms to draw blood with their hydraulic pistons, punctuating the agonizing minutes.
We were well beyond two TACAN’s away from our home base in San Diego - the “two TACAN rule” being that once outside of the range of two of these military navigation aids, anything goes. Such was the “wink-wink, nudge-nudge, need I say more” behind the veneer of Navy “family values.” It was an excuse, of course, for guys to get away with whatever did not leave permanent traces that flowers or penicillin could not cure stateside.
the time this only mattered a little to me. It had been only 3-4 months
ago since my marriage began to unravel in the middle of our squadron's
West Pacific (WESTPAC) deployment aboard the USS Constellation.
I vaguely remember thinking at the time how radically different my life
was turning out from the wife-
house - 2.5 kids- fast track to the space program life that I envisioned. Perhaps the most surreal moment was seeing our ship on CNN, patrolling during the Chinese missile crisis with Taiwan.
Yet, instead of being an ending, somehow it was the beginning - the beginning of how I came to understand that life is what happens while you make plans. Somehow, in the midst of feeling utterly small and alone in a steel city of five thousand, I discovered at the same time a much bigger part of myself. Funny how in what Navy pilots describe as little bigger than a postage stamp when landing at night, I realized that in your darkest moments there is grace - a quiet connectedness, even as you lay in your bed wondering what you're doing in the middle of nowhere. This must be how future travelers will feel shuttling among the stars.
Slowly, it became more and more evident that it was acceptable to break rank and swat your neighbor’s tormentors. Military standards dictated that in formation you were supposed to stand at attention, unyielding as the ceremonial guards keeping watch on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Yet, somehow by some unspoken consensus we all agreed that, while it was bad form to relieve yourself of the torture inflicted by these tiny Weapons of Mass Annoyance, it was acceptable to swat those around you.
One or two pats gradually mushroomed into what became a flurry of mercy beatings like the popping of bubble wrap at Christmas until at last we were dismissed. Sighs of relief mixed with bursts of laughter and disbelief, as we made our way back to the shelter of the hangar bay. It felt like a comic scene out of some old war movie, except this was no Hollywood fiction. No, we were far from some South Pacific island, fighting some epic battle for our lives.
Instead, it was 2004 – the Cold War had ended with the crashing debris of the Berlin Wall, signaling the end of the Iron Curtain era. Reagan’s proud 600-ship navy had been reduced to maybe half of its former glory. To justify its piece of the budget pie, the Navy turned to unorthodox missions like the counter-narcotics operation that brought us here to Ciba, Puerto Rico.
after night, our squadron launched the E-2C Hawkeye, otherwise known as
the Navy's AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System,) on sorties to
coordinate various agencies that in theory intercepted the drug runners
as they landed their contraband on nearby shores. While occasionally we would hear about a successful bust, it seemed like
only days later there would be another story about a bigger bust
Were we really making a dent on the war on drugs? Any more than the “Just Say No” campaign? Who knows.. Some days you believe you’re making a difference. Then there are others you wonder who is really doing the swatting and who is just buzzing around.