Sarah Smiley: Risky carrier landings and the hidden stories of veterans

Lindell joined the Navy in 1971. No, not my son Lindell, but my dad, also named Lindell, which makes writing that first sentence really weird.

Lindell joined the Navy in 1971. No, not my son Lindell, but my dad, also named Lindell, which makes writing that first sentence really weird.

Growing up, I thought everyone went to an aircraft carrier when they picked up their dad at work. Nothing about my dad seemed unusual to me. Now, however, as he is about to close the door on a 32-year active-duty military career and more than a decade helping to build America’s next aircraft carrier, it all seems pretty spectacular.

But you’d never know it.

So, back to 1971. Dad saw a recruiting film in the University of Missouri’s student union showing F-4 Phantoms landing on an aircraft carrier. Two young Navy pilots showed the promotional clip from a tabletop projector. Imagine: a projector!

Dad was a senior majoring in engineering, and he had just returned from a job interview with U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana. Dad had never seen the ocean, and he had certainly had never flown over it, and that made what the F-4 Phantoms were doing on the video seem much more exciting than working in a steel mill.

So he signed up.

He flew the A-4 Skyhawk first, then the F-4 Phantom. Eventually, however, he transitioned to the F-14 Tomcat program and attended the Navy’s Topgun school. Yes, like the movie. Somewhere in there, he earned the nickname “Yank.”

I learned most of that from Google. Dad doesn’t talk much about his career. Many veterans do not.

Occasionally someone on Facebook will send me pictures of my dad in the F-14. My boys view these with awe and a historical eye, because the Navy no longer operates F-14s. Also, they can’t imagine their Pop, the man who drives exactly the speed limit, ever flying one. (Trust me, you don’t want to get stuck behind my dad on a two-lane highway.)

The first time Dad took the boys tubing behind his speed boat, he was so cautious and slow, the tube didn’t get enough speed to plane. And I was trying to tell my kids that this is the man who used to break the sound barrier? Nonsense.

Sometimes people share stories with me like this one: In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the aircraft carrier’s optical landing system, the lights that signal a pilot if he’s too high or low to land on the aircraft carrier’s relatively short deck, went out. There was nothing to guide Dad, and his aircraft was low on fuel. No one thought they’d make it, but then Dad landed the plane without incident in the total blackness.

Sounds like something out of a movie, no?

I tell these stories to my sons, and none of it computes. They know my dad as the guy who still drives a pick-up truck, eats bologna sandwiches for lunch and once put his grandsons’ Transformer mask on his head while he was taking out the trash. The only connection to Dad’s past is when he comes into a room and jokingly tells his grandsons, “No need to salute, men. I’ll be in the area all day.” Dad’s namesake especially likes that one.

Sometimes, people retire from the military and have a hard time letting go of their rank. No one is worried about that with Dad. He will embrace the ordinary just as much as he tried to maintain it during his military career. Many veterans do. They slip back into “regular” life, where their military history seems absolutely foreign to the rest of the world. While we watch blockbuster Hollywood movies of action and adventure, these men and women lived it. It’s part of their lives, and then, suddenly, it’s part of their past.

I tease my dad that someday he will be in a retirement home asking for bologna sandwiches, and no one will believe that he once flew jets and commanded a carrier. Unless they ask, which I hope they do.

Our country is filled with veterans like my dad who may seem ordinary, but they have extraordinary stories to tell. We thank them one day a year, and then we impatiently honk at their slowness on all the other days.

I especially think about this when the boys and I go to retirement homes to have dinner with the residents. Many of them served in our country’s wars, and there they sit, a virtual treasure-chest of history and stories that rival anything Hollywood could make up.

So this week, as we celebrate veterans and what they do, don’t just stop at thanking a veteran. Go one step further and ask him or her for some stories. And if you get stuck behind my dad on a two-lane highway going exactly the speed limit, wave, don’t honk.

Follow columnist Sarah Smiley at https://www.facebook.com/sarah.is.smiley

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