The owner of the half-empty campground on a quiet lake here in the Florida panhandle near Pensacola is both a friendly and humorous host. He is enjoying this work as retirement from what he refers to only as “more arduous endeavors.” He has a golf cart in which he wanders the property picking up trash or delivering a bag of mulch somewhere. He is always out in the early morning. A pair of geese waits for him on the lawn. He races them each day, going only fast enough to appear to be losing as they run out in front. When they think he will overtake them, they cheat and fly off. It is fun to watch. He thinks it great sport and looks forward to it everyday.
This is a personal stop. I have come here to see the first place I was stationed in my short and vainglorious Navy career. The things I see here stir memories. The places and people of my life then were special. The places remain. The people are gone now one way or the other. Maturity came to me here, slowly but inevitably. It came because of these people I knew, liked, and learned from in this southern Navy town where they first disabused me of my individuality, then taught me much about trusting others, and finally what were to me the mysterious skills of aviation.
My visit now had a simple purpose. I wanted to see, in the reflection that can come with age, the places I that had so impressed me that I remembered them with such utter clarity. In the very early dark of a warm spring morning, I drove to the main base of the Naval Air Station Pensacola. The Marines guards at the gate are still as ramrod straight and as polite as ever. They are children, of course. They may not even have been born when I was here as an Aviation Officer Candidate. Perhaps their uncles stood where they do now and saluted the blue decal on the front bumper of one of my flashy cars as I, perhaps a year or two their senior nodded sagely, and went through the gate at that signal to do so.
This morning I must stop, as there are questions about where I am going at this ungodly hour, a smile in response to my ID card, and a pass issued to permit me to have my vehicle on the base for the day. In the end, there is the quiet “yes sir” from a Lance Corporal, and the privilege of a salute. I remember back then that when a gate guard saluted me in my car or a plane handler saluted an aircraft as we taxied it seemed a sign of respect. I found the salute an arcane practice when doing nothing more than walking around the base back then. I still do not know why. Navy tradition does not permit a return salute while in a vehicle. When these Marines snap smartly to attention and salute as you pass, you are only to acknowledge it by a nod of the head or lifting of a hand from the steering wheel. Perhaps this lack of a need to respond and yet in a way let them know that you acknowledge the privilege is what made it special. Perhaps it is because in our youthful egomania then we believed they were doing it because they could tell by some intuitive sense that we were one of those with The Right Stuff.
Thomas Wolfe wrote of them in his book of that name, which later became a badly adapted movie. He was referring to the best among military aviators. He likened the selection process of those that had “it” to a pyramid. There were those who were good enough to do it, to learn the necessary mechanical skills as those that made up its base, and those who had refined the skills to some degree as the middle. At the top, the smallest part of the pyramid, were those with the skill to do it so well, it is an art. In Wolfe’s view, the original group of seven astronauts came from this group, as did Chuck Yeager--who first broke the sound barrier-- other test pilots, and those that flew the very highest performance aircraft. Pensacola was then and is now the “Cradle of Naval Aviation,” as the literature at the museum will later point out. Those of the Navy and Marine Corps with “The Right Stuff” are molded here.
I parked on a street in the Boot Camp area and went down the walk to the small crest that overlooks this spotless and well manicured place. The morning formation and inspection was forming as it had every morning I was here and all the mornings since in the street in front of the same three Georgian style brick structures that housed the Corps of Cadets when I was here. These are “90 Day Wonders” who would soon be, by Act of Congress and their training, Officers and Gentlemen/women. Those here in these ranks have the same anxieties, hopes, and dreams that I did. They are all wondering at some level if, at the end of this hell of 16 weeks, and basic flight training they are to be judged good enough and smart enough to be taught to fly the fastest planes in the world.
They are, as always, in a uniform appropriate for the weather of the day. Today, when it will reach 85 degrees, it is “Tropical tans and low-quarter blacks” in the argot of this place. In English, that means they are wearing khaki trousers and short-sleeved shirts open at the neck and highly polished black dress shoes of ankle height. They all knew this was the uniform because it had been posted on the bulletin board last night and the Battalion Cadet Officer of the Day had confirmed it on the speaker system as he roused them abruptly from their dreamless sleep when Reveille was sounded at 0430. That is the last chance to give information that might have changed from the night before. One learns to awaken quickly to absorb such things, since, had rain come during the night, as it will in this Gulf Coast town, the Plan of the Day (a.k.a. the POD) posted the night before would have made the information on it about the uniform or place of inspection obsolete. With only ten minutes to get ready for the day, it is not a time of leisurely conjecture.
The Battalion Cadet Officer of the Day is the honorific given to a “boot” from a class somewhere midway through this sixteen-week ordeal. It was his responsibility last night to guard the Battalion well and to pass on any new information at this, the only opportunity. This is practice for them, this learning how to work in sleep deprivation when one is required to “stand watch” aboard ship, just as for all of us, learning that “halls” were now “passageways” and “stairs” were now “ladders” and the lower floor was “below” and the upper, “topside” and that walls were now “bulkheads.” Drill Sergeants were not amused if these terms were forgotten.
During my time here, reveille had sounded on a few occasions during an unexpected heavy rain. The new information was passed on and our hectic lives went on as the Navy had planned. On one however, the unfortunate fellow on duty forgot to include a few essential facts, which, to all but a first week recruit, were obvious, but since not changed, remained the POD. He failed to mention that the inspection was to be held indoors at our bunks rather than in the very wet street. He also failed to tell us that the shoes to be worn had been changed and raincoats were to be carried or worn if required.
Since there are three buildings, there are three such Cadet guardians of the night. We lesser beings presumed that the other Battalions had made the necessary changes. Loud protests were hooted down the passageways and ladder wells toward the poor young man in the office “below.” Realizing his mistake, he was both embarrassed and choking on his own voice now since he couldn’t be sure the Battalion Drill Instructor was not already in his office down the passageway at this early hour, listening. Pensacola has Marine Gunnery Sergeants as Drill Instructors who, if such a thing is possible, can make one positively fear for one’s life by the mere use of his voice. The lad finally handed the microphone to one of the more junior cadets that had helped him keep order in the silent battalion through this very short night, who announced the change.
It would be nice to report that this was a character building experience for this young, soon to be commissioned fellow, but alas, it was not. Since not in my “week,” thus not my Boot Camp class, I did not know him well, but I did know him to be a good cadet. After he had been verbally reprimanded by the week’s Cadet Officers assigned to the battalion, the DI, and the Lieutenant, he was “put on report” and assigned “tours” to march—relentlessly back and forth for hours on the parade ground with a rifle on his shoulder all day Saturday--for the age-old Navy crime known simply as “screwing up.” He soon quit the program, “dropped at his own request.” He went to the fleet as a “Dixie Cup.” This was our less than flattering term for those who did not complete the program and finished whatever Navy obligation they had as enlisted men wearing the traditional round Navy white hat which, when viewed from above, looks exactly like the container of that name. Busy, as we all were, we shrugged and, if we thought of it at all when such things happened, decided that he really didn’t want to fly. In retrospect, I am not sure. He may have dreamt of flying all his life. At the time, we were too busy to anything but dismissive in our judgment. It is not a gentle place, and there is little time for introspection. If someone dropped out while we endured this frenzied pace, we forgot them. They disappeared from our conscious thought. They didn’t have “it.” They were no longer a part of the constant tension and pressure. They ceased to exist. There is cruelness in that but a protective instinct as well. Upon reflection these are not feelings of which one is always proud.
On this beautiful spring morning, in a new century, the formation looked neat and rigid. The rituals of the inspection and minor harassments were the same. There was a singular and startling difference. Nearly a third of those now standing at rigid attention in the street awaiting inspection, questions, and verbal abuse from their Drill Instructor’s and this week’s Cadet Officer’s, were women. How odd. I had forgotten. I expected, I suppose, to hold up a mirror and see a reflection. Instead, I saw today’s Navy, where Aviation Officer Candidates come, not only all sizes and shapes, but now of both sexes as well.
A Cadet Officer approached from behind and asked if I needed something. When I turned, I noted the three bar emblem of a Cadet Battalion Commander on the uniform collar. She seemed quite pleasant, yet had a clear, firm sound of command in her voice. I said no, as I pointed off toward the formation, I was only here to try to remember what it was like to be that young, believe I was that smart, and have that much energy so early in the morning. She looked me over and smiled a smile that made my day. She seemed to decide I was not a danger to her or others. We then engaged in the small talk of the “brotherhood,” about the plane I flew and what aircraft carriers I flew from and the rest. Next week she too, would begin the same incredible journey to see whether she had the “right stuff.” I wished her well. She asked that I enjoy my return here and moved on to her morning duties with a military bearing many of my colleagues would have envied.
The inspection ended and the ranks marched off to various venues to begin the long, sometimes painful day that would end in exhaustion at 10 PM that night with “Taps.”
Each class, from week two through fourteen is on a different schedule. In week fifteen, the week before your last, you are taken to a Florida swamp to learn the rudimentary techniques of evasion and escape. Such skills would be refined with far more horrid experiences, should you “reach the fleet,” the term used for the completion of training.
In your last week, you are in “charge” as a “Cadet Officer.” It is a euphemism of course, since you were still practicing and did little independently. The discipline was more lax and the expectations higher, but you were never really on your own.
The rank you were assigned determined your duties, but more importantly, the rank you attained was determined by your peers as well as your academic and physical training marks. The greatest weight is given peer ranking. Each week, we graded the three highest cadets in our class. The criteria are in large part for selflessness and teamwork. It is a good system. I am sure there were those who ranked each other high because they were friends, but most did it for other reasons. If someone returned early from a weekend off and waxed the floors in the common areas instead of catching a nap, for example. Selflessness was an important ingredient in enduring this craziness. It was one of the reasons why I had been impressed by the woman I had met. She held the second highest rank a Cadet Officer could hold. There are only three Battalion Commanders. That her athleticism and academics were good enough and, more importantly, her peers thought enough of her to rank her that high was to me testament that the entrenched machismo culture of the Navy and particularly of naval aviation could change.
When the morning formations had dispersed, I went to the new Aviation Museum. It is a most impressive place and a reminder of how proud the Navy and Marines are of their Aviator heroes. There was much history here, including some images even I remembered.
I left the base after lunch and handed my pass to the guard. He took it, and in perhaps an involuntary gesture borne of training and practice, stiffened and snapped off one more perfect salute, which gave the man driving the van one last smile. I nodded, waved, and went on.