Change of Command: Dad Misses Out
My dad wasn't able to get from his part of the desert to the Rocket Scientist's part of the desert last Friday, so he missed the impressive ceremony marking the Rocket Scientist's ascension to Commander (Commanding Officer?) of the 452nd Global Hawk squadron. I am positive I have the name wrong, but it is something equally impressive, even through my San Francisco-tinged eyes.
The Global Hawk is an unmanned supersonic airplane, one of the strangest-looking vehicles I've ever seen. There was one parked near the stage at the ceremony. Halfway through the event, a guy with very good posture stood next to the Global Hawk while Colonel Cook, commander of stuff much larger than the 452nd, explained how the plane carries the name of the commanding officer of the squadron. With less flourish than I would have expected from a civilian ceremony, the guy with good posture removed a tarp from the plane, revealing the name of the Rocket Scientist. It was pretty cool.
It's very unfortunate that my dad was not at the ceremony, Noodles' Mom and I both agreed. For years I thought that the Rocket Scientist was the son my dad never had. It was only recently that I realized that the Rocket Scientist is living the dream my dad never got. It was only recently also that I learned that at age 18 my dad was accepted to West Point. My grandmother let it slip one day while we were visiting. I knew he'd been in the army, and I knew he revered West Point, to the degree that he somehow convinced the 3-year-old me that I wanted to grow up to become a West Point cement truck driver, but didn't know that he'd almost gone there.
He washed out before he ever got a chance, though. His failing left eye did the trick. What has been a light-hearted family reference for years ("It's blue, just like my eye!") gained a little traction as a vehicle for tragedy with this knowledge. Poor Dad.
This is a long and perhaps too revealing way of saying that he would really have enjoyed the "Change of Command" ceremony we attended last Friday. He would have enjoyed the pomp and ceremony, how we were all ferried into a back room prior to the event, where we met Colonel Cook (who seemed unable to get a grasp on the concept that some women work and support their families. "Uh...I'm a writer, Colonel Cook." Right. I support a family in San Francisco as a writer. The kind of writer who earns $10,000 a year. That woman over there next to my child has something to do with our survival, Colonel Cook. Whatever.). We were happy to be back there -- my family, my sister's family, her in-laws and the Rocket Scientist's very outdoorsy brother, his wife and their very tiny infant son who had a Jewish first name despite the family's so-very-obviously-not-Jewish background.
Dad would have enjoyed that the whole thing took place in a hangar, which had been cooled to 46 degrees F. He would have liked the guy in fatigues who, as we passed on our way in, saluted the Rocket Scientist and said, "Congratulations, Sir. Will we be performing the stomping tonight?"
The "stomping," I later learned, involves a group of military guys who come to your house, climb into the roof, and stomp around until you invite them in for alcoholic beverages. This sort of thing happens all the time at Brandeis, of course. It's rare to have a Friday where a bunch of guys don't come over, climb onto our roof, and stomp around in their Merrill slip-ons until we invite them for a glass of Pinot Noir.
And Dad would have liked shaking hands with Colonel Cook, and the Rocket Scientist's predecessor, whose name I don't remember. What I do remember is that his "call sign (nickname)" was "Squish," and that he had eight -- count 'em, eight -- kids, mostly boys with lots of freckles and a strange hairstyle that involved gelling each individual bang down over their foreheads. Eight kids!
Soon it was time for the ceremony to begin. We were escorted out to the hangar, which was already full of about 150 people, mostly guys wearing olive drab flight suits with patches that said "Test Pilot School Graduate," plus lots of "honored guests" and one absolute pansy from San Francisco who gets nauseous on roller coasters.
The stage was at the front of the hangar. As we sat, Colonel Cook, "Squish" and the Rocket Scientist -- whose "call sign," to my great joy, is actually "Rocket," which is actually short for "Rocket Scientist," because he is an honest-to-God Rocket Scientist -- walked somberly onto the stage. There was one guy who acted as the emcee, plus a nervous-looking guy whose entire job was to hold up the squadron flag for the entire ceremony.
Since I was not privy to the inside gossip (I learned it all later), all I saw was a very disciplined, moving ceremony, involving lots of tradition. The color guard moved slowly to the stage for the national anthem, holding the Jawa's attention the whole time. "Look at how they walk," I told him, pointing out their precise heel-toe action. Colonel Cook thanked the distinguished guests by name, including not only some general, but, among others, my sister, her in-laws, Sandra Bullock, the Jawa, and eight kids with strange-looking individually gelled bangs.
Colonel Cook sung the praises of "Squish," he of the eight kids and prominent eyebrows. Looking a bit like Richard Benjamin, "Squish" ate it up respectfully, then came forward to offer his own quite comprehensive remarks, which included a ceremony of his own invention involving each and every one of his kids, plus a bag full of unusual coins. As he spoke, I scanned his bio in the program. "Squish," it seems, accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior in 1973, when he was 8 years old.
After "Squish" spoke, Colonel Cook, the Rocket Scientist, and "Squish," all joined together on the dias to complete the actual change of command. The nervous-looking guy joined them with the flag, which they then played some kind of hand-over-hand thing on. I guess at the end the Rocket Scientist's hand must have ended up on top, signaling that he was now in charge of the squadron. "Squish" and his eight kids would now move onto another squadron, but not until "Squish" received an almost comically huge medal, presumably for a job well done.
Then it was goodbye, "Squish," hello Rocket Scientist.
I was not expecting much from the Rocket Scientist's "remarks." Known more for precision knowledge of unusual things -- for example, Colonel Cook introduced him as "probably the nation's pre-eminent expert on unmanned flight," which makes me wonder why my sister is so worried that he will not be able to get a job once he retires from the military -- than for his social abilities, the Rocket Scientist would have been excused if his remarks were as dry as we were freezing in that hangar. But no! In a shocking turn of events, the Rocket Scientist delivered an entertaining, breezy yet very weighty speech, promising, among other things, to "take the squadron to the next (very specific but forgotten by me) step," and to buy my sister another Kate Spade bag. "Squish" may be competent but lets face it; the Rocket Scientist is a stud.
I stand by that, even with the memory of my Jawa melting down in exhaustion the next day at the California Poppy Festival while the Rocket Scientist and his dad methodically browsed the Arts & Crafts booths fresh in my mind.
The ceremony closed with plenty of hoo-hahing, and then a very surreal moment where Colonel Cook, Squish and the Rocket Scientist led the crowd in a round of "Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder" from the stage.
But it would have been cool if my dad could have been there, if only because he would have been the sole attendee not complaining about the icy temperature there in the hangar, even though he would have been wearing a short-sleeved shirt while the rest of us huddled in sweaters.
I know that the reality of this day was not as clear as this ceremony would make it, and that the military isn't always the most empathetic employer. And I know that as a good San Franciscan, I should have been muttering under my breath about the "military-industrial complex." So shoot me. I'm not a good San Francisco. Not by a long shot. In fact, I kind of enjoyed the opportunity to block out all of the white noise for a morning, be proud of my brother-in-law, and dig the traditions if his chosen profession.
Dad, you shoulda been there.