I am not an armed forces veteran, but the first half of my life was greatly shaped by the US Army and Air Force via my father’s service; his father had also served our country during World War II.
I was born in a military hospital in Offutt Air Force Base, just outside Omaha, Nebraska, in the midst of the Cold War. In my early years I lived on four separate airbases:
- Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska
- Castle Air Force Base, near Merced, California
- Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota
- Andersen Air Force Base, Guam
The sounds of roaring jet aircraft dominated the ambiance of many front-lawn afternoons at my family housing unit. Dad was a tail gunner for the titanic B-52D Stratofortress long-range bomber, which to my young mind made him much larger than life. He was greater than the average citizen; he was not only an American Soldier, he was also an American Warrior. With a swing of his giant guns, he made evil Russkie pilots place tails between legs and fly for their lives in the face of Almighty American Power.
Still, the phrase “I’m going on TDY” (temporary off-location duty) was one that I dreaded to hear before each of my father’s lengthy flight assignments. He would lift me up onto his lap just as the tears began to flow and tell me stories of heroic F-4 Phantom IIs that swooped and turned in the sky, protecting each bomber flight. Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft was a constant companion, and all of my books were littered with the grinning faces of anthropomorphic jets — each beaming toothpaste-commercial smiles as they soared through cotton ball clouds.
It wasn’t until much later in life that he told me a tale of his most harrowing mission. I never once questioned the tallness of his story in the listening, for I was enraptured from the first line. His flight of a single B-52 and a few escort craft were patrolling in international waters off the coast of southeastern Asia when a squadron of unfriendly MiG fighter jets happened upon them. No shots were fired, but the MiGs proceeded to aggressively position themselves within the US aircrafts’ flight paths. Several moments occurred where the MiGs flew so close to the B-52’s tail that Dad could see the instruments on the pilots’ cockpits. More than once he swung his guns towards the fighters, only for the bogey pilots to lose their nerve and fly away. After many nervous minutes, the MiGs peeled away.
Today, I remember our veterans for their service and sacrifice — but most of all, I remember the boy I once was: the son that idolized his airman father. And each time I see and hear our military jets roar overhead — for just a moment, I’m that boy once again.