December 24 2015
A grey mist gripped the Puget Sound for Christmas Eve. I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore. Mom died two years before of a slow, wasting illness. Her passing had shredded what remained of our tenuous family. Old disagreements flared, arguments decades old freshly renewed. We had all gone our separate ways, with scarce contact.
Still, it was Christmas Eve. I was traveling in my Ford to my sister’s in Keyport. I had taken the long way around, dipping below the south of Puget Sound to her house. I prefer traveling in a single direction, bouncing between ferry boats, was ridiculous. I would catch the ferry into West Seattle to drop off gifts to my two brothers after my sister’s. I had no desire to see them in my mood, just relieve my conscience from days long past, giving something at Christmas, even when you didn’t mean it.
The gifts would go unreciprocated.
Highway three passed the tidewater of the Naval Shipyard. I glanced towards the ships moored in the mothball fleet. A lump formed in my throat.
Her paint was grey and flaking, but I could still make out the number “63” on her faded island. CV-63, the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. She looked dead, sitting amongst other ships whose time had passed by. Obsolete, she was being stored, awaiting her end. I had heard rumors the city she was named for was trying to purchase her, tow her to the east coast and repurpose her as a museum, a tourist attraction.
“Better we had really gone to war,” my black thoughts rose, “and she had sunk beneath the waves as a heroine, then this.”
My mind wandered back to thirty-four years before…
August 1981, Gonzo Station, Indian Ocean
“…And on the flight deck, let’s getting ready for the next event,” the intercom, loving known as the 5MC or the bitch box announced. The voice was the Flight Deck officer, a burly bearded Commander nicknamed “the Boss.”
Being narrowed out for attention by the Boss was not a happy affair. From his perch three stories above the flight deck, the Boss could see all, hear all, know all. I had been invited once to his gondola for some minor infraction. I quaked as he reigned unspeakable abuse verbally on my poor, nineteen-year-old soul. I swore eternal fealty to the Boss that night and promised to never, EVER do whatever foolishness I was guilty of again on his Flight Deck.
“Helmets on and securely fastened. Sleeves rolled down, vests snapped up. Goggles and gloves on. All right guys, let’s do a complete F.O.D. walkaround the go birds and lite ‘em up!”
Around the crowded flight deck, hundreds of men in bright colored jerseys raced in a careful ballet. Brown shirted plane captains stripped the tie-down chains from their squadron’s aircraft. Pilots inspected their jets, climbed in and performing elaborate checklists. Electrical power, from wells in the deck, was applied, waking the warbirds. Pneumatic hoses from “huffer” carts were connected, the whine of their compressors adding to the din. One by one, engines were started, a pop as they ignited, growling to a dull roar. Handlers in their yellow jerseys with yellow wands stood by to direct the aircraft through the madness.
Blue shirted assistants for each handler removed the last four chains and gathered up the fifty pound chocks. While the aircraft moved, they stayed ever alert to the handler, ready at a moment’s notice to throw their chock under the landing gear of their aircraft moving across the slippery deck.
I stood alongside the sponson for one of the two helicopters being launched. At night, two would take to the air as plane guard, should a fixed wing aircraft falter and crash into the black ocean or some poor soul working the flight deck be blown into the dark sea. Above us, on the mast a dozen stories up, flood lights cast an amber glow that cut-off abruptly at the decks edge. Enough light for us to do our duties on the busy deck and colored to protect our night vision.
When I was first exposed to the flight deck, it was terrifying enough. With only the ethereal light, the terror would freeze the heartiest of souls. Until you got used to it.
My helicopters rotor was spinning, bouncing the fairing under my arm. It wasn’t cool to look scared or excited when you’re working the roof. I leaned on the ‘copter, my body language screaming, “Yeah, it’s cool, it’s all good,” while my head rotated and my eyes kept moving, watching for anything out of the ordinary or dangerous. The flashing green light under my arm changed to a steady green. The Landing Signal (enlisted) stroked the red and green wands of his flashlights, instructions to release the aircraft’s chains. I spun, racing for the tailwheel for my first chain. It was a race against my buddy on the other side. Frenchie beat me to the tailwheel, but hesitated as the hook in the pad-eye hung up. Grinning, I gathered my fifteen-pound chain in one hand and returned to the sponson. My second chain on the main landing gear released, I gathered both chains in my left hand, then pulled the fifty-pound chock from the tire. I stood waiting for ten long seconds for Frenchie to appear.
He came around the nose determined. Side by side, we raised the chocks and chains above our heads, allowing the pilot to verify his aircraft was free of the ship. We raced outside the rotor arch, joining the rest of our squadron mates assembled for the launch.
The helo clawed its way into the night sky, the ten of us leaning into the mini-hurricane caused by the launching helicopter. Normally, we would race across the deck and back to the safety of our shop, the shack, just below the flight deck. Since the fix wing aircraft were already lined up and connecting to the steam catapults, we moved behind the one inch wide, red and white stripe that circled the air operations area. The magic stripe denoted where it was seemingly safe to stand, dividing man from machine.
My sin had been playing hoky-poky with the foul line.
The first jet taxied carefully to the catapult. An F-14A Tomcat, lethal missiles under its belly and wings. A toothy shark mouth adorned the nose of the aircraft. As it crept forward, green shirted final checkers circled the awakened beast, searching for leaks or mechanical problem that would prevent the jet from safely flying. A catapult crewman frog walked next to the nose landing gear, guiding the launch bar into position. The connection was made, the crewman raced away from the warbird, his thumb raised.
A green shirted officer assumed control. He raised his wand high in the air. The Tomcat sparkled as its external lights illuminated. The launch officer spun his raised wand in tiny circles. The pilot advanced his throttles and engaged the afterburners. The restrained beast vibrated against its shackles, screaming for release. Blue-white flame burst from its tailpipes, the flame extending up and over the heavy blast deflectors raised behind it to protect anyone and anything aft of the eager beast.
Inside my chest, I could feel my organs vibrating from the sound.
The launch officer knelt, touching his wand to the deck, then pointed into the darkness. The beast hesitated, then bellowed down the short runway and into the moonless night. A fiery dragon released to rain terror on unsuspecting villagers. The second Tomcat, already on the catapult outboard of the first, began its deafening below.
Frenchie and I stood side by side, watching each other’s back for unseen danger. As the second Tomcat screamed into the night, I turned and put my mouth against his ear protection.
“Is this freaking great, or what!” I screamed.
December 24 2015
I stood in the drizzle, remembering. I’d lost track of them, all the guys from the squadron and the ship as the years went by. Occasionally, I find a shipmate in my travels or another guy who’d “Danced on the roof.” We swap sea-stories, lies carefully wrapped with a touch of the truth.
Strangers who didn’t do the dance can never understand.
A half hour I stared at the old lady. Soon, she’d be connected to tugs, pulled across the sea and permanently be put to pasture. The more I thought about it, her proud history, her battle stars and the thousands of us who had done our dance on her deck, I felt relief the Kitty was finding a permanent home, were she could bask in her glories and forever be honored.
I saluted the old girl one last time and got back in my truck. As I continued my journey, I thought about my family. Mom wouldn’t have wanted us to be this way.
The next morning, I called all my brothers and sisters, wishing them a sincere Merry Christmas.