You know what’s crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy™
MY LITTLE FIGHTER PILOT:
My daughter called me today.
There was a rainbow in her voice as she shouted into the phone:
I GOT JETS!
And with those 3 little words, a life long dream was realized.
She was elated, beaming. I could hear it in her voice. Though I couldn’t see her face, I could tell she was smiling broadly, like the time I let go of her bike seat and she peddled away on her own, looking back to let me see she was riding solo, like a “Big Girl.”
Now she is a big girl, but the smile in her voice is the same as when she was four years old.
“I’m going to be a fighter pilot,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
I felt the pride in my chest push into my ribs, like a Macy’s Thanksgiving day float filling with air.
You don’t just become a fighter pilot.
You have to want to be a fighter pilot. You have to dream of being a fighter pilot. And even if you want it and dream it, most people don’t get to do it.
It’s elusive like Big Foot. It’s exclusive like the Playboy Mansion. It’s prestigious like a Congressional Medal of Honor.
Naval Fighter Pilot.
It sounds so regal, I imagine the queen uses a sword to swear you into this elite society.
Fighter Pilot: It’s a highly specialized skill. Like flying the space shuttle, or juggling chain saws.
It’s dangerous and life threatening.
It’s one part adrenaline and two parts calm.
It’s about going as fast as a human can go, strapped on the back of a rocket with wings, while controlling vectors, G force and the unforeseen insanity.
Imagine parachuting through a thunder cloud, and you are beginning to understand the rush.
“I did really well in Primary,” she said in an understatement for the ages.
Practically everyone training with you failed.
600 candidates. Almost every one of them dreamed of being a fighter pilot. Almost everyone of them has to find a new occupation.
The Navy chose my girl for the job.
That’s like Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield fence and then calling his shot and then jacking the next pitch into the stands.
“Out of 6 squadrons, only 2 jet spots were handed out,” she exclaimed. “And I was one of the 2.”
6 Squadrons. 600 candidates.
Not all these fly boys and gals want jets. Some want helicopters. Some want to go to sea. But if you are going to fly, then you might as well fly at the speed of sound, on fire, on the edge.
If you play football, you want to be the star quarterback throwing the winning pass in the super bowl.
My Daughter wanted Jets. I will come to learn, she has always wanted Jets. Perhaps as I was letting go of her first bike, teaching her to ride, she was wanting Jets.
The crazy thing?
The Navy just invited her to the Jet party!
I knew she was special from the very beginning.
When she was born, all the other children in the neo natal unit looked perplexed. They had just ripped their way into the world, exiting a warm womb into the cold unknown.
They laid in their bassinets behind the glass, nervous, crying, unsure what this new world had in store.
My daughter entered the world like a warrior child. She was born angry, defiant, determined.
Her 1st moment of life photo says it all.
She is sneering at the camera, like a gambler bluffing an inside straight.
She is one minute old and she has entered life like Clint Eastwood, throwing back his poncho to reveal a loaded six shooter.
“Go ahead. Make my Day,” her fierce look seemed to say.
“This one’s different,” you could almost hear the nurses whisper.
And so it was.
She was always ferocious, always determined, always singularly steadfast in purpose.
At 18 months, she did a flip off my shoulders into the community pool.
She was a tiny coconut human wearing a bright pink suit.
I remember her standing on my shoulders, then flipping into the deep end.
She was 15 pounds of unstoppable momentum, a baby Tom Cruise doing all her own stunts.
She went under the water and began to instinctively swim.
Another adult, thinking I was a miscreant with a habit of drowning pre-schoolers, jumped in and began to save her.
I looked at him with an angry stare.
“She can swim,” I said proudly.
The adult stopped and watched in shock as the tiny tadpole scooted through the water to the side of the pool.
She raised her head. There was no smile. Only that look. That primal, ferocious, nobody can stop me look that scared nurses on the 1st day of life.
She was Patton popping her head up from the tank looking for another town to conquer.
She was different this one. She was older than her age. She was somehow wiser than her years.
At age 10 she says dreamed of becoming a pilot.
She either never told me about this dream, or sadly, I never listened.
But the dream was real. She could see it, and somehow, like a baby bird knows how to fly from a nest, she instinctively did things that brought this dream closer to becoming a reality.
When she joined ROTC in high school, I could see the big strokes on the canvas. She was training and running and learning how to be something larger than life.
She was up at the crack of dawn to join her platoon to run the obstacle course and help others over the wall.
I remember she came home one day, her arm hanging loosely.
“What happened?,” I asked.
“I dislocated my shoulder pulling another kid over the wall,” she said calmly.
Dedicated. Calm. Purpose.
She has always been singularly focused, preparing for a moment that has yet to come.
When she was a junior, her grandmother took her to a Navy camp in Annapolis.
Though the regimentation of military protocol was new, in some ways, it was like a moth returning to the flame. She was in her element. The order, the discipline, the expectations of greatness. It’s as if she had been here all her life.
And in a chapter written by the Gods, she was noticed, standing apart from the other pedestrian souls who neither shined nor stood out.
Out of hundreds of camping candidates, many of whom were born to Navy brass, my girl is chosen as the camper of the session. Her talents were recognized by Naval staff and she was plucked from the throng of ordinary and thrust upon the stage.
She was chosen the candidate of the session.
Women seated behind her grandmother leaned forward and said with confidence, “Oh she’s a shoe in for the naval academy.”
In her senior year, the dream was on track like a heat seeking missile.
The mission: GO TO THE U.S. NAVAL ACADEMY.
The U.S. Naval Academy is the Holy Grail.
It is Harvard for the aspiring economist. It is Oxford to the blossoming mathematician.
To go to the U.S. Naval Academy you need to be a teenage captain of industry, a high school shining star, a young adult power broker.
Think about it.
How many 16 and 17 year old’s can even remember to brush their teeth?
She was all these things, and the world took notice.
But to achieve this magnitude of success at such an early age, requires assistance. Greatness often needs a helping hand. To go to the U.S. Naval Academy, you need a powerful recommendation that knocks on the door for you.
She got that prestigious recommendation from U.S. Congressman, Marsha Blackburn. Each year the venerable law maker chooses one deserving candidate from her district. Each year the powerful legislator chooses one candidate for admittance.
This year, out of the ether, she chose my girl.
It was a done deal, everyone told me. Your daughter is going to the United States Naval Academy.
For months we waited. Then the sad, surprising news. Her admission was declined. No explanation. No reason. Just Sorry.
Marsha Blackburn’s office was furious. The powerful law maker was not consulted on the decision.
“Big Navy doesn’t have to tell us why they chose how they chose,” one assistant told me over the phone.
“The Congressman is not pleased,” the woman said. “She is not accustomed to having her selection dismissed.”
My girl was down. My girl was disappointed.
The Clint Eastwood stare was replaced by frustration.
She had worked a life time for this chance, and suddenly she was shut down.
All the morning runs, the dislocated shoulders, the selfless dedication to duty.
And for what?
One day my phone rings. I look at the caller ID. It’s Long Beach, California.
I remember this moment, because I was sitting in the front seat of my news car, in a parking lot of a pill mill. That’s a doctor’s office where junkies know they can come and pretend they have an ailment and the doctor will prescribe opiods.
I’m documenting people coming and going into the clinic as I begin my conversation with the man from Long Beach.
He quickly introduces himself as a Captain somebody. He immediately explains that he is in charge of my daughter’s case and he dropped the ball.
“It’s my fault he will say,” over the speaker phone as drug dependent losers go from car to car bumming smokes in the pill mill parking lot.
“She was in. I was sure she was going to the Naval Academy. I was working on getting other candidates in. I don’t know what happened. I dropped the ball. We still want your daughter. What can I do?”
I remember his words filling the front of my car. Words like honor and dedication and service. I remember listening to him while watching scum bags and dirt humans looking to get high.
My girl was upset. She didn’t want to go to a regular college. She wanted the Naval Academy.
Why? because it was the best of the best.
Because she was upset, I was upset.
“Look sir. What’s the big deal with my daughter? Really?,” I said watching a drug exchange go down. “Why does the Navy care whether my 17 year old daughter does anything?”
The naval recruiter didn’t hesitate. “I get it sir. You’re a father. You are not trained to see what we see. But in 10 years, we see your daughter leading men into battle.”
I watch a man take a long drag on a cigarette that is burned to the filter. He has a worn face and burn marks on the tips of his fingers. I don’t know this man, but I can see he is agitated, needing his fix.
“You see my daughter leading men into battle?,” I say with some degree of skepticism.
“The little girl who just drove my Nissan Armada into the refrigerator in my garage, hooked the door and yanked it off! That girl leading men into battle?”
“Yes, sir. I realize that it’s not easy for a parent to see. But trust me. That’s what we are trained to do. We are trained to identify Naval officers who will excel.”
I think about his words while watching a woman lean into a car window in this sad commentary of American drug addiction.
“I can get her into Vanderbilt University right now. Just say the word. A four year ride.”
“She doesn’t want to go to Vanderbilt,” I respond.
“I can get her a full scholarship into Yale. She was accepted there, correct?”
I’m getting angry, and I have to work. “Sir. I appreciate your words. I’ll ask about Yale, but really, she wanted to go to the U.S. Naval Academy. You guys blew it.”
The next few months are full of sadness and frustration.
The girl decides to go to the University of San Diego. A small school on a hill over looking the Pacific.
She doesn’t really want to go here, but she goes anyway.
Then a funny thing happens along the highway of life.
She realizes that she can be a kid, and have fun, and still be in Navy ROTC.
She joins a sorority and she studies abroad and she is still in the Navy Pipeline.
She is happy.
But she will often tell me that she lost her chance at Jets, because those who go to the U.S. Naval Academy are given a higher priority when candidates are chosen.
I don’t know anything about the process. I can only be her dad and support her saying “Don’t worry. The cream always rises to the top.”
I often think back to what that recruiter told me that day. WE SEE YOUR DAUGHTER LEADING MEN INTO BATTLE.
If the Naval Academy is the only way, then why was she not chosen to go there?
I don’t obsess on it. But my daughter does.
But she does what she has always done.
She graduates with honors. She gets assigned to a flight program in Pensacola. She studies phone book sized manuals on aircraft engineering and mechanical dynamics and navigation and instrumentation.
The course is rigorous and even the brightest and best are weeded out.
“Big Navy doesn’t want to waste a million dollars training a pilot to fly if they can’t cut it,” she will often tell me.
She studies and she learns to fly.
“The instructors call me a Stick Monkey,” she says.
A stick monkey in the parlance of aviators is someone who just has that feel flying an aircraft. You can learn all you want in manuals, but the real proof is when you grab the control stick and force this machine to defy the laws of gravity.
Grizzled Vets know a stick monkey when they see one, and the girl apparently has it.
I hear about her success over the phone. The first take off. The first landing. The first solo. The first instrument rated flight. The first flight to New Orleans, and Nashville and Chattanooga.
All I can think is: WOW.
“I did a dog fight today, Padre,” she exclaims, telling me about chasing another student pilot in a T-6 training aircraft.
She calls me one day and there is uncertainty in her voice.
She tells me that she has to select soon. She has to select either Jets or Helicopters.
She says Helicopters would be ok. They are in pristine places like San Diego and Hawaii and Japan. For the sake of this conversation, Jet life is a dirty dusty life. Jets are in far away dust bowl places where there is no semblance of life or palm trees or excitement.
“Jets are loud. Nobody wants Jets in their backyard,” she will tell me over and over.
I think back on the little girl who was born with the Clint Eastwood stare. I think back on the young woman who dislocated her shoulder pulling another kid over a 12 foot wall. I think about the girl who supposedly is destined to lead men into battle.
“You’re 23 years old. Who cares where you live. You want Jets. If Jets want you, then you need to follow the dream wherever the dream is destined to take you.”
The next day she calls me and says I am right. Like the little poker player she is, she is all in for Jets. She will request them, and if she doesn’t get Jets, then she will be happy to fly Helicopters for a living.
And then the call from Big Navy.
She gets Jets.
She is one of only 2 women in the last 6 months to be selected for the program.
My little girl who drove into the garage refrigerator and ripped off the door is now going to Kingsville Texas, a dust bowl in the middle of nowhere to fly what she calls the pointy nose. It’s a T-45 training jet.
She is on cloud nine when she calls.
“I got Jets!!,” she exclaims over and over and over, like a child opening up that one special present at Christmas. “It’s surreal!”
I feel my chest swell with pride.
It’s an amazing feeling as a father.
From the push of the bike, to the flip off my shoulders, this has been a long process.
A woman becoming a Naval Fighter Pilot is like a girl joining a Boy’s fraternity. It’s not wanted and doesn’t happen.
The Navy doesn’t care about equal opportunity.
The Navy cares about efficiency and the best of the best conducting missions at Mach 2.
What gender is pulling back on the joy stick is somewhat irrelevant.
Wanting Jets and Getting Jets is a whole new ball game.
It’s always been a man’s world in the big blue yonder.
Girl’s have usually watched from the ground.
But my little girl is destined for the clouds.
She was born a bad ass and is fulfilling that destiny one high speed maneuver at a time.
Soon she will be exploding into the clouds, and perhaps one day, landing on aircraft carriers, and executing sorties over enemy territory.
She was born with the right stuff.
I always knew it.
It just took a recruiter at a drug raid to pound it into my head.
“My mind is blown,” she will tell me upon learning the news.
I’m proud of my little Fighter Pilot.
In many ways she reminds me of me.
In many ways, she is so much better than me.
I can’t wait to see what the infant with the Clint Eastwood glare does next.