Both sides of my family served in the military. My mother’s family went in the Army, all the way back to the Civil War (yes, fighting on the wrong side). Dad’s family went for the Navy, which was pretty funny considering they were from a landlocked state. Dad did one tour on ships, realized pilots had a better deal than anyone else, and wound up flying helicopters.
My brother, who has always had an eye for a bargain, opted for the U.S. Naval Academy, where he could be paid to go to college. Not surprisingly, Big Brother then opted for submarines, which paid the best and had the best food. (We’re really into tasty food and a lot of it in my family.) He had to go to nuclear engineering school and spend months underwater. You might think freezing cold water or drowning would be a submariner’s greatest fear, but Big Brother assured me that the greatest dangers were fire — a fire in the clothes dryer, or a fire in the deep-fat fryer. (The price of delicious food!)
My brother’s closest friends/ roommates also became self-proclaimed “bubbleheads.” By the time they graduated, they’d also practically become family, visiting us every weekend they could escape the USNA. Like my brother, they told us stories of sitting on ice blocks to commemorate their first trips under the North Pole. Minnesota Sub Man once called me when he was supposed to be underwater for at least another month. Turned out his boat had crashed into another sub. They had to return home for repairs.
“Wow! Were you scared?” I asked.
“We were shitting ourselves.”
“Damn. Who the hell was driving?”
“Have you learned nothing? You don’t drive a submarine. You steer—”
“It was you, wasn’t it?”
I watched my brother and his fellow bubbleheads get shot down regularly by women who’d watched An Officer and a Gentleman or Top Gun too many times. These women would laugh and smile at first, only to move on when they found out Big Brother and his buddies were “only” submariners. These women were determined to land the most coveted naval prize – an aviator like Iceman or Maverick.
It didn’t make any sense to me, but apparently plenty of women won’t answer when their phone rings unless the caller has aviator’s wings.
Living in D.C., I saw military uniforms everywhere, especially the summer I worked at hotel restaurant by Dulles Airport. But only once did I spot an actual pilot.
Not that you could miss him – with blonde hair, in his summer whites, the man stood out like a shining unicorn in a herd of grey and navy business suits. He strutted like a unicorn, too, puffing out the shiny aviator badge on his chest like a golden horn as he came to pay at the register.
As I handed him a receipt to sign, I asked, “Are…are you in the Navy?”
His chest puffed higher. “Yes, yes I am.”
“Oh, wow,” I told him, my eyes big and round. “What do you do in the Navy?”
“I am a Naval Aviator,” he announced, his chest puffing even further.
This was not the reaction he expected. He tried again. “You know, a pilot.”
“I know,” I said, giving Mr. Unicorn Aviator his copy of the receipt and my most disappointed face. “I was just hoping you did something really cool and dangerous. Like submarines. Like Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide, or Courtney B. Vance in The Hunt for Red October. But a pilot is okay, I guess. Thank you for your service.”
I might be a writer, but I will never have the words to accurately describe the mixture of shock, deflation, and puzzlement on that pilot’s face as he slunk out of the hotel like a kicked mule instead of a prancing unicorn.
Score one for the bubbleheads.