I’ve been busy writing and not doing much else of interest, so I thought I’d tell you a story from the distant past:
Way back before The Dog’s Favourite Person and I got married, he had a college friend named Mike Smith (not his real last name). Mike was crazy. I’m not sure how they met but suspect it had something to do with golf. Or beer. Maybe both. Mike was the kind of guy who had no fear and recognized no limits. I didn’t know Mike very well, mostly because he never stopped moving long enough to have an entire conversation with anyone, but I liked him. In spite of the stories.
One of the milder stories, to which I was not a witness but it was often retold, involved a late night bet about who could drive across the U of MN campus the fastest from Point A to Point B. I believe this was after consuming unknown quantities of beer. Or after playing golf. Maybe both. Story goes, Mike decided there were too many cars or buildings or whatever in his way so he bumped up over the curb and drove down the sidewalk and across the pedestrian-only quad. He won.
That kind of crazy was typical of Mike. No fear. No limits. No holding back. There are stories I can’t tell in public, and not just because no one would believe me. We sort of lost touch with Mike after college and I can’t say it wasn’t a bit of a relief. It was hardly a surprise to hear he had become a Navy pilot, flying A-6 and A-7 fighter jets off aircraft carriers.
We’d moved to Atlanta by then and one day we got a call saying he’d be in town for a few days, flying training runs out of Dobbins AFB, and asking did we want to get together since he had a spare day, catch up on old times. Also, did we mind if he brought along his navigator, a guy named, um, honestly, I can’t remember his name. We’ll call him Jeff Larson (not his real name) (at least I don’t think so).
So of course we invited them to come have dinner and insisted they spend the night. We had a great time catching up, but mostly listening to Mike tell stories about flying fighter jets off aircraft carriers. And about their upcoming training mission flying through the mountains in north Georgia at night, navigating by instruments only. Because it was DARK. And you couldn’t SEE anything. In the MOUNTAINS. Jeff was pretty quiet through all this, adding a wry comment here and there, but he was one of those still waters run deep kind of guys. Nice guy, just sort of contained.
So then Mike decided we all should go out to a bar. This was back before we had kids, back when we were ready to party at a moment’s notice, so off we went.
Did I mention Mike was crazy? And that it was sort of contagious? Yeah.
It was late fall and cool outside and we were all wearing jeans, but Mike and Jeff were also wearing these brown leather jackets– bomber jackets, I guess you’d call them. Not sure whether they were “official” military issue, but they had some insignia patch things so probably they were at least quasi-official. These jackets were the epitome of cool. And I got the idea in my head that I wanted to wear one. So when we got to the bar, I stopped everyone in the parking lot and told Jeff that he should let me wear his jacket inside. He looked startled, but amused.
I said, “C’mon, wouldn’t it be fun to pretend and tell everyone that I’m a navigator?”
Mike and Jeff and even TDFP all thought this was pretty funny (women weren’t even allowed to be fighter pilots back then) and agreed to play along. Never mind the damn thing weighed twenty pounds and was hotter than hell and practically oozing testosterone, I was determined to wear that jacket. Next thing you know, I was walking into the bar next to Mike, both of us wearing very cool leather bomber jackets and an attitude.
Now, you have to understand that this was the early ’80s, a few years before TOP GUN was released. We’d never have gotten away with it after that movie, because everyone would have scoffed and said, “Who do you think you are, Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis?” But this was before that.
So TDFP and Jeff hung back a bit and Mike and I walked in together, him with the genuine attitude and me faking it as best I could. Mike isn’t very tall, just under six feet, and I’m 5’8″ but was wearing boots with an almost two-inch heel, so I wasn’t much shorter. Of course, Jeff was well over six feet and the shoulders and sleeves of his jacket were obviously way too big for me. But it was late and the lights were dim and everyone in the bar had been drinking for a while. Besides, no one was paying any attention to me. Not much anyway. Because Mike had the presence and confidence and charisma of, well, of a guy who flew fighter jets off aircraft carriers.
So I followed along as Mike scoped out the place and walked around the bar until he found a spot he liked, facing the door. It was crowded but everyone stepped aside when he angled up to the rail, with me right behind him.
He ordered a couple beers and handed one to me but I don’t think he ever got to pay for them. Because then the oh-so-casual questions started.
“You military?” asked the bartender.
“Yep. Navy pilot. This here’s my navigator.”
The bartender, who had not been drinking, quirked an eyebrow and so I winked at him, but the man next to me snorted in disbelief. “You shittin’ me, man? This is your navigator?”
Mike turned and leveled a fierce glare at the guy, serious as I’d ever seen him, and said, “You talkin’ about Larson here? Larson is absolutely my navigator. You calling me a liar?”
I had visions of an ugly bar fight so I stood up a bit straighter and leveled my own steely glare, looking the guy right in the eyes and not flinching, not even when I realized Jeff and TDFP had bellied up a few feet away, listening in and trying not to snort beer out their noses.
The guy backed down and said, “Whoa, man, that’s cool as hell. What kind of jets you two fly?”
And then Mike, who was born crazy and never grew out of it, prompted by questions from all the guys who had by now gathered around us, launched into the most ridiculous over-the-top round of
bullshit storytelling I’d ever heard. And yet it didn’t come across as bragging. Just your typical calm matter-of-fact (and completely outrageous) answers to questions. Although, judging from the knowing expression on Jeff’s face, probably most of it was true.
All I had to do was stand there and agree with everything he said, trying to look like the cool and collected and extremely competent badass navigator of a Navy fighter jet, nodding seriously when warranted between swigs of beer, and adding a comment here and there from the remembered conversation at my dinner table.
It. Was. A. Blast. Probably the most fun I’ve ever had while drinking beer. Mostly because I don’t really like beer so I hardly ever drink it. But still.
And then I heard Mike telling everyone how icy I was under pressure and when I looked over at him he had a teasing challenging glint in his eye as he described that time he sent us into a freefall downward spiral and then pulled out just before ground level into an upward inverted double barrel roll pulling 5 G’s and—
Okay, I totally just made up that description. I have no idea what it even means but it makes as much sense as whatever it was he really said because whatever it was sounded like something no one in their right mind would ever do on purpose and I was half afraid he’d take me out in his fighter jet the next day and make me give it a try if I acted like it was no big deal and so I said, “Well, I did lose it on that one.”
He threw back his head and laughed and then slapped me on the back and said, “Hell, everyone loses it the first time. You did fine after that.”
And I shrugged in a sort of grudging agreement, because who was I to argue with him, especially when I had no idea what the hell he was talking about, but also because I suspected Jeff had survived that maneuver just fine and it was clearly a matter of pride at this point, and so I gave a slow smile to the group of guys surrounding us, something Jeff never would have been able to pull off, and said, “Damn straight, I did.”
And then everyone bought us more beer.
We all somehow managed to keep a straight face until we were back out in the parking lot and then we totally lost it. We were bent over, gasping, we were laughing so hard. And Jeff picked me up and spun me around and kissed me on the cheek and said, “That was the best thing I’ve seen in a bar, ever.” I decided maybe he didn’t get out much. We all laughed some more and when I tried to give him back the jacket he told me I’d earned the right to at least wear it home. So I did.
They left the next morning to go back to their crazy dangerous jobs and I haven’t seen either one of them since then. A few years later we heard that Mike was planning to retire from the Navy and get his license to fly commercial passenger jets. Word was, he wanted to fly for [XYZ] Airlines. At that time, [XYZ] Airlines was the only airline that offered non-stop flights from Atlanta to Minneapolis, where most of my family lived. They were my choice of airline too.
For YEARS after that, I dreaded the day I’d board a commercial jet and hear the captain greeting the passengers over the intercom, “Welcome aboard, this is your captain, Mike Smith.”
I’m telling you, right then and there, I would have demanded they let me off the damn plane. Because I just KNOW the rest of the announcement would have been something like, “Once we reach our cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, we’ll be performing evasive maneuvers over most of the Midwest and executing a couple barrel rolls just outside of Chicago before we make our final approach into Minneapolis. Weather conditions at our destination show sunny skies and a pleasant temperature of 65 degrees with a light wind from the west. Please remain seated and for godsakes pay attention to the fasten seatbelt signs. Enjoy the flight.”
Luckily, that never happened. But it would have made a great story.