Victory in Europe
I never met my Great Uncle Al.  He died on May 8th, 1945, 27 years before I was born.

It was VE Day, an event that, in my family, carries a certain bitter irony:  Uncle Al was shot down piloting a B-29 over Japan.  Filling in, no less, for the pilot scheduled to fly the mission, who had fallen ill.

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The war was all but over by then, or so the history books tell us.  The United States controlled the skies, and was dropping so many bombs on Tokyo that different targets would have to be chosen for those most infamous of all B-29 missions a few months later.

Uncle Al was twenty-six years old.

He and his crew’s remains were found by a Japanese priest and buried with proper ceremony – and then exhumed years later, sent home to the United States, where they were interred together again, the ashes of those brave men who, like so many others on all sides, died so young.

He left behind his twin sister:  my grandmother, Lorraine.  She’s 94 now, my last living grandparent.  We were talking about her twin brother the other day.  “Al”, it turns out, was short for “Alsace”.  They were born in December of 1918, my great-grandparents choosing the names in celebration of the armistice that concluded what was at the time thought to be the war that would end all wars.

It’s been almost seventy years.  My grandmother still cries when she talks about him.

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September 5th, 1977
Cape Canaveral, Florida:  NASA mounts a 1590 pound, plutonium-powered spacecraft atop a Titan III Centaur rocket, performs various feats of technical wizardry, and sends the combined assemblage hurtling into the sky.

The Titan’s heritage is a proud one:  it is a direct descendant of our nation’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, based in large part on work done by a certain former SS lieutenant who, among other things, in 1959 will go on to star in a Disney special viewed by forty million people.

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Walt Disney, and Werner Von Braun

The spacecraft’s name is Voyager 1.  Its mission:  to explore the outer reaches of the solar system, and beyond.  Voyager will fly forever – there isn’t much in the way of friction in deep space to slow it down.

More interestingly, Plutonium 238 has a half-life of 78 years.  Perhaps this nation can’t even put anything into orbit just now, but Voyager’s heart is still beating.

September 10th, 1977
Five days after Voyager I begins its journey, back on Earth the University of Washington men’s football team kicks off its season, defeating sixteenth-ranked Mississippi State by a score of 27-18.  Forty-five thousand people show up to watch – orders of magnitude more, I imagine, than showed up to send noble Voyager on its way.  It will be the first of 27 seasons the team will win at least half its games, and culminates in a dramatic New Year’s Day upset of fourth-ranked Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

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I am five years old.  And though I have no clear memory of the day, I imagine I listened to the game with my father on his AM radio, which he always had with him when he worked in the garden on the weekends.  I wasn’t good for much in the way of yard work, especially at that age, but I loved to listen to football games with my dad.

What I am certain of, however, is that we watched that year’s Rose Bowl with my grandparents.  It was a family tradition, the January 1st drive to their home in Lake City an annual pilgrimage.

Grandma and grandpa had a color TV.

I sure did like me some football, back then.

I still do.

August 15, 1990
High school has wound its interminable way to a merciful close, giving way to summertime and all else yet to come.  I have a job working for the Museum of Flight, where I spend my days selling tickets and gift shop merchandise, narrating the start of the museum’s two films, and, when I’m lucky, hiding downstairs in the stockroom, sorting through the merchandise, which includes model airplanes of all shapes and sizes.

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The Russian F-15

It’s the best job I’ve ever had.  Partly because my girlfriend works there too, but also because – well – airplanes.

This particular weekend is the air show, which means twelve hours Saturday and eight more on Sunday baking on a blistering asphalt tarmac, a thin canvas awning all that protects us from the August heat.  It is my job to help manage the crowds – and of course, to sell tickets.   For my troubles, I get $6.50 an hour and a front-row seat to the most extraordinary assemblage of airplanes I have ever seen.

The star of the show is the Sukhoi Su-27, Russia’s version of the F-15, itself the Air Force’s version of the plane Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer made famous when they weren’t playing beach volleyball.

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Val!

It is the hardest I’ve ever worked, and I have an absolute blast.

I sure did like me some airplanes, back then.

There also, I still do.

July 10, 2013
Today was my grandfather’s birthday.  I really should be writing about him, and I suppose in part I am; my memories of my grandparents are intertwined, just as their lives were for the fifty years they spent together.  And truly, football games were the least of the things we shared.

We are also, as it happens, in a dead zone of the American retail calendar just now, one of those times when the relentless cadence of consumption flags, just a little.  The fourth of July is receding in the rear-view mirror, our annual dose of patriotism burned out along with the bottle rockets my neighbors soft-landed in the snap-peas in my backyard.  Barbecue season has already peaked (you might not think so, but the ketchup sales figures don’t lie), and the back-to-school specials are still to come.

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It should be illegal to remind ten-year-olds that summer vacation isn’t infinite – at least before the third week of August.

Fortunately for the marketing industry, football season is almost upon us again.  Here is work the lowliest intern can do:  contact sports and cheerleaders; hot dogs and beer.  It pretty much sells itself, as they say in the business.

Me?  I might go to a game or two.  The Huskies are supposed to be good this year.

But then there’s this.  I can’t help but feel that I’m being sold something a little more distasteful than nitrate-laden processed meat with my football these days.

Now maybe this was always so.  Certainly the military and football have always hugged each other close, all the way back to the days when the Army-Notre Dame game was a going concern.

Maybe the stadium flyover is nothing new, and I’ve  just started over-thinking it.

Maybe like with so many things, the world is ever and always the same; it’s just that we change, and see things with adult eyes, if we are lucky to live so long.

I make no pleas for a return to an innocence that never was.  But still, as fingers start to point, as that collective shiver passes through the crowd, as breaths are held in anticipation, the last notes of the Star Spangled Banner hanging in the air while those distant dark shapes in the sky grow larger, and Larger, and LARGER, engines roaring as they pass directly overhead…

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The Air Force, projecting power… over the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

No rush of patriotism fills me.

I don’t think about the heroics of my great uncle’s generation, like I am certain I am meant to.    I don’t think of our nation’s glorious space exploring past.  The never-quite-grew-up 12-year-old boy in me refuses to put in an appearance, even though I still love airplanes.

I think about marketing, and the projection of power.  (Also, I hope whatever happens to be flying over head isn’t armed).

I mean, that’s what they’re for, right?  Those billion dollar B-2s, and their kin?  Aren’t they basically a form of advertising?

Trouble on the Korean peninsula?  Paraphrasing Portlandia – fly a bird over it.

Hunting militants in Afghanistan?  Fly a bird over it (preferably unmanned).

Trouble brewing in Syria?  Who here thinks that ends in anything other than a no-fly zone?

Seventy thousand people gathered at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington?

There’s no need to give me the bird.  No need to deliver that particular marketing message.  I get that this is what we are good at as a nation, I promise.

Hell, I don’t know.  Perhaps these things I was so fond of as a child – airplanes and space exploration and football (and even fishing) – perhaps these are just vices, now.  Something no self-respecting liberal should expect to enjoy.  Maybe football is just a metaphor for combat, nothing less and nothing more, and that’s why we as a people love it so.

But sometimes I just want to watch a damned game in peace, all the same.

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