Down Here on the Ground       The Family Front    63 - 73   When Fathers Fly Away

‘Additional Responsibilities’

As both wondrous and disconcerting memories of the aerial gunnery range faded into the activity of our first Coronado Christmas, the pace of Dad’s duties picked up substantially.  I was still young enough to play Little League and joined a team as soon as we had moved.  Still cherishing my memory of Dad in the stands for every game at Los Altos Hills, I realized those days were gone and behind us.  Even though we had occasional Saturday ‘errands’ to run, our time together was limited and Dad’s focus was, naturally, on his work.   

On one last trip across the southern Mojave, Dad barely made it in the Plymouth.  She coughed her way into Yuma and onto the base, leaving little hope for recovery.  I thought about all of the discovery, all the laughs and learning with Dad, and a childhood’s worth of memories sighing her last sigh in the desert air.  She could not be saved and was left in the sandy, windblown BOQ parking lot.  Dad joined a ‘hop’ to Miramar and home.  Boyhood innocence and a father’s love can coalesce into a warm, harmonious alchemy.  But time is fleeting and change is inevitable.  

At the very start of 1963 he was the executive officer of VF-51 (a squadron designation + more on Navy vocabulary and ‘structure’ in the next entry).  Dad was a little disappointed with his assignment because 1.  He had already served as an operations officer prior to graduate school and 2.  As collegial as things were in squadrons, Dad knew that his new boss, the commanding officer, was raised in the Deep South and harbored deep racial bias.  ‘Ace’ (his nickname) seldom kept his prejudice to himself. 

While he had long-since encountered both bureaucratic difficulty and discriminatory attitudes in the Navy, neither of these was new nor surprising.  Still, the intensity of the racism did not sit well with Dad who had been raised to revere his Illinois ‘brother,’ Abraham Lincoln.  This value conflict resulted in a long, alcohol fueled “discussion” about race one Saturday night in our living room.  It was the first of many times I would situate myself on the offset stairs in the kitchen to eavesdrop on a living room conversation. With quiet confidence, Dad held his ground and would not give an inch to the bigotry of his boss.  I listened and admired Dad as he stood up for this important matter of principle – and respected him even more years later when I discovered one good fight like that could result in a marginal fitness report.  Bad fitness reports from superior officers ended more than one Naval aviator’s career.

Back to Work

This significant shift back ‘on the line’ was busy.  VF-51 was in Carrier Air Group 5 aboard the USS Ticonderoga.  The ‘Tico’ departed North Island on January 3, 1963. The WESTPAC (Western Pacific) ports of call were the same as those from Dad’s days as a junior officer in VF-211 aboard the Midway.  Cruise books (similar to a college yearbook covering a cruise) were one way to stay connected to what Dad was doing and the recent USS Midway books ticked off the itinerary: Pearl Harbor, Subic Bay, Hong Kong, Yokosuka, Manila and points in between, as ordered. Upon return to San Diego on July 15, the squadron had another stint at Chocolate Mountain and a set of four training cruises lasting anywhere from ten days to three weeks, each. Dad was flying every day during this workup and seemed simultaneously invigorated, happy, and exhausted. We were right in the thick of it – a four boy, full speed ahead, hectic Navy household.

One occasionally repeated conversation revealed the soft underbelly of all this activity.  Excitement and apprehension are twin faces for the fighter pilot and his family. We were all together on a whirlwind Saturday afternoon with each of us going in a different direction. The living room was loud, confusing, and filled with energy.  In the swirl, Mom and Dad were having a conversation when, with a little more volume than the prevailing din, Mom almost pleaded, “I’m just wondering when things will calm down and we will have a normal life.” This thin difference between conversation and conflict was unusual.  She was smiling for appearances but her forehead worry lines crinkled.  We fell silent.  Dad, knowing this was momentary anxiousness, calmly replied, “This is it, Syb, you know this. This is our normal Navy life.”  He paused momentarily and then, “Would you have it any other way?”  Mom tried to laugh a little and finally, as her forehead smoothed out, “I guess not,” and the room slowly resumed its earlier, if now subdued, rhythm.

The last training aboard ship ended April 3, 1964. Eleven days later the Ticonderoga deployed for a second long cruise with additional ports of call in Southeast Asia. Our lives were buzzing but filled with joy. During these exciting days, Dad was promoted to Commanding Officer of VF-51. He was moving up the professional ladder or, in Navy jargon, “scaling the pyramid” as desirable (ascending) ‘jobs’ for aviators became more and more exclusive with each successive promotion. (See Video Below)

My Basement Room

Family life was choppy as I went from 7th to 8th and into 9th grades. There was more and more emphasis on chores and helping with my brothers. (One mantra that Mom would invoke, “If you can be trusted with a separate entrance bedroom, you can handle additional responsibilities.”)  The monster bougainvillea was just one piece of endless yard work.  Upkeep seemed to be at a premium, as I became both everyday dishwasher and grass cutter/gardener in short order.  I soon realized I was a gardener in paradise where any and every form of plant life grows vigorously with minimal attention.  Much of my time was spent hacking at flowering shrubs or chopping off the spread of a neighbor’s encroaching bamboo.

My basement room was set apart from the rest of the house and gave me access, security, and freedom. I could go anywhere on the island as long as I checked in and this was the longest stretch I’d ever seen with the same schools and classmates.  I had people to see and things to do!  Skateboarding, school, the beach, and athletics filled many of these days, although one aspect Mom already disliked was a peer group that had a ‘bad influence’ on some of my activities

We were middle school kids – smoking cigarettes and occasionally whisking a few beers out of the pantry. Riding over to North Island, I could easily grab a pack of Marlboros for 25 cents at vending machines across from the pool tables in the theatre building. I think some of this aberrant behavior was especially mysterious to Mom. But we weren’t tempted by delinquency.  We were just mid-20th century kids pursuing an ever-elusive all-American adolescent dream.  We just wanted to be cool.

On any given day when I was back from the beach, ball field or park, I enjoyed being separated downstairs. I had Dad’s old Zenith clock radio tuned to KGB – AM (yes, really) and an Akai tape recorder with a wooden cabinet speaker as well as a record player. I was all set in my basement room, a ‘bachelor pad’ as described in any girlie magazine we could get our hands on.

When there was little else to do I occasionally took inventory. I reviewed my ‘moving essentials;’ rollaway bed, an old leather suitcase that had belonged to my grandfather, and a beaten up wooden dresser that we never unpacked from place to place. These were the totems of any Navy junior – always ready to hit the road, always ready for that next adventure. What I could not know was that our family would never again hit that road. We weren’t going anywhere for a while.

Adventure, though… – we were in for an adventure.


Dennis Quaid and Pamela Reed

The Right Stuff: Gordo and Trudy Cooper arrive at Edwards Air Force Base.
Listen to how Gordo describes climbing the ladder and the pyramid.
Substitute sons for daughters and make that a Chevy a Station Wagon… Just like home.

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