The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible)(9)
Written By: Rachel Starnes
In California, he climbed into a centrifuge—a huge salad spinner—and strapped himself into a harnessed seat in front of a camera. An engine spooled up and he spun around the room on the end of a giant counterweight until the centrifugal force reached approximately seven and a half g’s and he began to get tunnel vision, at which point someone watching him on a screen alerted someone else and the voice, always the voice, yelled over a loudspeaker, Squeeze! Squeeze your legs and your ass!
I made myself useful during this period by helping him memorize flight maneuvers, aircraft and engine limitations, and emergency procedures verbatim for his flight briefs. The numbers and acronyms were interesting and completely foreign, a chant that made little sense but was soothing in repetition. I would quiz him while he showered and I wiped the steam from the mirror to put on mascara. “Out-of-control-flight procedure? Engine fire warning light? Emergency exit?”
Through the hiss of the water he would splutter back his answers in a rapid stream of words. “Canopy: open. Harness: release. Parachute: unfasten, evacuate aircraft. Warning! If aircraft is evacuated on ground while wearing parachute with lanyard connected, parachute will deploy, possibly inflating and dragging pilot in windy conditions; in a postcrash fire, pilot will be dragged into fireball.” Sometimes he would do it in a singsong voice, confident in his mastery.
“It’s ‘should postcrash fire occur, pilot could be dragged into fireball,’ ” I corrected. Over and over, the tiny pilot in my mind asphyxiated when his oxygen system failed, lost track of his altitude in an uncontrolled spin, and blinked in panic, as I would, at any number of sudden warning lights. The words of the procedures were an incantation against accident, and our exchange of them a contract—I’ll support you in this, and you’ll come back to me safely. It was terrifying and comforting, and I insisted on absolute accuracy.
And all that time, there were others to outperform, slots to compete for in the great siphoning off of student pilots coming into the pipeline of helicopters, electronic surveillance planes, and fighter jets. Ross wanted fighters, the F/A-18 Super Hornet specifically, and he explained to me his estimation of the costs and benefits of each community. “Community,” in this case, meant the group of pilots flying a particular aircraft, not a fixed location in the country, since each aircraft had a series of home bases through which its pilots could potentially rotate over the course of a career. It was an interesting trick of semantics—co-opting a word for “home” and replacing it with a military aircraft. The “Hornet community,” he allowed, could move us to some pretty underwhelming physical locations—tiny towns either in south Texas or Mississippi for training, and then one of two places to prepare to join the fleet: Lemoore, a small town in California’s Central Valley near Fresno, or the place most people hoped for, and the only large city on the menu, Virginia Beach, Virginia. The jet community would also be more competitive and stressful in comparison to others, but that was hardly surprising for a hypermacho group that sometimes differentiated itself by calling its members “carnivores” and everyone else “herbivores.” In Ross’s estimation, this was exactly where he wanted to be.
The weeks before he was assigned a community were some of the most stressful for the two of us. I saw the crossover into Hornet territory as a concrete step toward war, and a level of active participation in it that terrified me both for the danger and separations it involved and for the possibility that Ross might one day be responsible for taking lives. Ross didn’t see it that way. He was getting closer to a dream he’d been working hard for, one that would ask for great sacrifices but would offer the chance at being the best at something. As for the question of taking lives, he said, “I could be the guy protecting Marines on the ground who call in air support. I could be saving lives too.”
When the selections came out and he got jets, he was so clearly happy that he seemed to vibrate with it, but he was almost superstitiously quiet too. When we met up for drinks with his friends from flight school, many of whom were still reeling, either happily or gloomily, about their own fates, Ross said little about the future and instead directed his conversation to the hilarity and shared trials of the past. He knew something I didn’t know fully. This was good-bye; we would never see many of these people again.
Things would change between the two of us as well. I had helped Ross memorize data and procedures for the small trainer propeller plane everyone flew in the beginning of flight school, and then in his first trainer jet, and that little bit of shared effort had made me feel like I had a small but important role to play. But when Ross moved on to the F/A-18 Super Hornet, his training manuals were classified and locked in a vault, where he had to check in with an intelligence specialist, leave his cell phone outside, and keep his written notes in a binder that stayed in the vault. I was shocked to discover how keenly I missed our repetitive study sessions, and how much it felt like a door had been closed in our relationship and what we could share of this job that affected the both of us so profoundly.
Finding an identity for myself during flight school was like trying to plant a garden in a highway median. Every time I landed a job and built up some relationships in it, another relocation order would come plowing through it. After the retail bookstore job in Pensacola, I found a part-time job teaching community college writing labs in Corpus Christi, Texas, while Ross worked his way up to the selection to jets, and I held on to that job tenaciously when we moved an hour south, to Kingsville. Between the commute and my limited hours, I barely broke even on the endeavor, but it was hard enough to convince someone to hire a military spouse who would definitely relocate. Also, it felt vital to hold on to something of my own, some reason, no matter how tiny, for me to be in a particular location beyond just following Ross.