True story!

Once upon a time, in the summer of the Year of The Big Guy one thousand nine hundred and eighty-seven, your humble scribe and his band of merry brothers were in the bight at Diego Garcia, swinging on the hook on account of the fact that there wasn’t enough money to steam the great warship aboard which he had the honor to serve. Ronald Reagan was at that time Head Guy What was in Charge of Stuff, which may sort of help you put that whole “there’s never enough money to go around” thing into perspective, nearly 20 years on.

And even anchored as we were, taken as a whole, our time in the bight was not a comprehensively horrible experience, chiefly because, through one of those “only in the Navy” vagaries, there was plenty of money with which to fly the pilots, which is one of the very few things pilots really care about, except for beer, which it turns out was also to be had in heroic quantities, our hosts at D-Gar being Brits, a stout race of men whose admiration of beverages made with malt, barley and hops has previously been remarked upon.

Work there was to do aboard ship, but being as we were young, and pilots, there was not so very much. We’d flown some jets off to the local airstrip and took turns at the flying of them over the deep cerulean sea, brawling amongst one another like playful puppies in $40 million cages and dropping the odd practice bomb while the joy of our laughter echoed across the open spaces. Meanwhile, back aboard the carrier the blackshoes professional surface warfare officers sullenly conducted their general quarters drills while swinging on the chain, no doubt wishing in their dark and secret hearts that we were all well clear of land what with all its nasty shallow water, and beer and fun.

We were required to be home before midnight and to sleep aboard the ship at night rather than a nice soft bed ashore because Dad Said, but apart from that when we were not working or flying or sleeping we were free to romp about on dry land in pursuit of whatever trouble we could get into that wouldn’t end up in our Permanent Records.

So of the three basic needs of man, we had two in ready supply between the flying and the beering, and the third was tantalizingly close at hand as well but, alas, forbidden to us. The problem was that, fetching as many of the subjects of our potential affections might have been (not to mention a few who were clearly willing) they were also in the naval service. Which would not in and of itself have been a barrier to that union most devoutly to be wished for those of us sentenced to the monastic existence of a sailor at sea in the prime of his life, except for the fact that their service was in the enlisted ranks, and so therefore any class of association between them and ourselves that did not scrupulously follow naval protocol was Severely Frowned Upon Indeed, the distinction being thought important, and noli me tangere was the order of the day.

Now some of us are oaks, and some are elms and none of us should judge lest we be judged, unless of course we are in a position of statutory authority as defined by Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in which case, have at it, judge away. The fact that getting caught in such a dangerous liaison could get you frowned right out of the service was no obstacle to the hero of our tale, whom we shall call Lazlo, since that was in fact his name. He had somehow contrived to make a Special Friend while ashore, and spent evenings so late as to become early again in that friend’s company. This caused something of a scandal in his mess but while there might have been mutterings, grimaces and sideways glances between his junior officer brothers, none of this bubbled up to the point where it might reach the ears of Dad because he was The Man, and we, as yet, were not.

Day after day passed like this in something very near to pastoral bliss for our happy tribe, each morning comprised of breakfast and a hangover cure, paperwork ‘til lunch followed by a nap, a flight and dinner ashore, complete with ice cubes. Nothing lasts forever though, and finally it came to pass that something or other untoward occurred somewhere in the world, the President himself asked, “Where are the carriers?” as presidents are wont to do and orders came to get our own particular carrier underway, and that right quick, the money necessary to steam her being found between the cushions and we should have looked there to begin with, what we were thinking?

Being the juniorest pilot afloat, your humble scribe was sent ashore to fly one of the jets parked at the airstrip back aboard, the extra landing being thought positively accretive to my overall experience level. There I waited with three of my brothers from other mothers for the ship to get up and go (ships being inordinately slow things, being manned chiefly by surface guys) and dined on a breakfast guaranteed to turn a cardiologist’s hair white, safe in the knowledge that anyone who flies fighters off aircraft carriers at night and worries about heart disease is an irrepressible optimist. Thus engaged and suited up for instant action, g-suit harness and the rest, who might have walked into the greasy spoon wherein we dined but Lazlo and his Special Friend, himself dressed not in a flight suit nor even khakis gentle reader but rather in Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, straw hat and flip flops, a get-up most unsuitable to the circumstances of either flying aboard or getting underway.

“What are you doing here?” we cried in unison and dismay, but Lazlo only laughed and made vague deprecatory motions with his hands while we tried to explain to him the story of the carrier’s emergency sortie from the bight. “Tell it to the Marines,” he replied, he was nobody’s fool and wouldn’t be rattled by transparent fictions of emergency sorties woven by shipmates jealous of his successes; what did we take him for?

Well, gentle reader, we took him for to see, and stepping outside we pointed out into the bight the evidence of a Kitty Hawk-class warship belching black smoke from her stacks while all about her decks Sailors swarmed, readying her for sea and leaving him to draw his own conclusions. At last seeing the truth in our tale, and beginning to suspect that this might End Badly (missing ship’s movement being considered a grievous offense), our hero quickly hired a small boat to take him out to sea in an attempt to come up the boarding ladder, as surreptitiously as ever he might. Quickly did they cast off and quickly race across the bounding waves in their brave attempt, but no: It would never do. The ship had already cast off the breasting barge to which the boarding ladder had only lately been secured; the anchor was a-trip, colors shifted and herself making way purposefully out to sea. Having motored around the ship once or twice, enough at least to startle into deep and thoughtful silence those Sailors walking the carrier’s weather decks, unaccustomed as they were to the sight of a young man in a power boat, wearing Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, straw hat and flip flops circling the ship as it got underway, hollering and waving his arms at them, Laz and his driver headed back ashore. There things might have gone very badly indeed, had he not cajoled the plane guard helicopter crew on the beach into smuggling him aboard once the fighters had safely landed and been tucked away.

So things were looking up, but not all the way up: Once a Navy warship gets underway, whether it be from homeport or foreign anchorages, it is considered a Right and Proper Thing to hold a man overboard drill. You see, it’s not that anyone is actually concerned that someone might be having fallen into the sea after such a routine evolution, but that a man overboard drill requires a full and complete muster of all hands, and a report to Higher Authority. Because this is the Navy, there is a premium attached to doing the muster quickly, and it’s considered very bad form and something of a disgrace to not be able to report your squadron mustered in less than five minutes, it being written there somewhere in the leadership position description that you ought to be able to count your people, in a pinch. But our squadron could not report a full and complete muster gentle reader, because, while I and my other fly-on pilots were accounted for, Lazlo as you are aware, most certainly was not. And soon the whole ship knew as well, since our hero’s name was repeatedly called on the ship’s announcing system in censorious tones, obliging him to report immediately to the Big XO on the bridge with his ID card in hand. This occurred every five minutes for over two hours, and by the time Lazlo made it aboard, our squadron commanding officer and executive officer were in an exceptionally high state of lather, with the XO offering to personally drown Lazlo once his whereabouts were established. Those of my brothers remaining aboard the ship showed all due mournful deference if The Heavies looked around, but made antic gestures and comical faces at each other once they looked away because few things are as truly delicious to contemplate as someone else’s pending evisceration.

Well, we trapped aboard, and the plane guard helo followed, landing right aft on centerline. Down in our squadron ready room, the CO and XO morosely stared at the pilot’s landing aid television set in the ready room, having nothing better to do between biting their nails and silently fuming. Thus boiling, they were gratified by the sight of the helo’s starboard side door opening up, and a certain FA-18 pilot by the name of Lazlo, dressed as he was in Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, straw hat and flip flops jumping out of the helicopter, down to the gray and greasy flight deck and into our hearts forever.

The PLAT camera zoomed in for a deeply incriminatory moment and dwelled lovingly on Lazlo’s features before he could duck around the left side of the helo and into the port catwalk. The heavies were poleaxed into immobility by this almost incomprehensible display, exceeding as it did so dramatically the previously understood limits of universal possibility. Well before either of them could move from their chairs, Laz found his way to a phone so as to call down to the squadron duty officer, asking hopefully,

Anybody miss me?”