Tell me again why I didn’t join the Air Force?

I’m not sure why I never became a fighter pilot because when I was a kid that is all I dreamed of becoming.  From the ceiling that my brother Tommy and I shared hung models of every fighter plane imaginable dating from World War 1.  P-51D’s shared airspace with Fokker Triplanes and F- 101 Voodoo’s.  An F4U Corsair rolled in on an F-86 Saber, a Sopwith Pup diced with an F-4 Phantom and a Mitsubishi Zero dove away from an entire squadron of A-4 Skyhawks in Blue Angels livery flying a tight diamond formation.  My favorite fighter though was a silver North American F-100 Super Saber because that was the type of plane that Mr. Al flew.  Al Baham, like my father was an attorney.  An occupation that at the time I considered was the height of boredom.  All my Dad seemed to do was chase paper.  Briefcases full of the stuff!  Al Baham was likewise an attorney but Al Baham was also a fighter pilot.  Al flew for the Air National Guard, specifically the 159th Tactical Fighter Group, based at Belle Chasse NAS near New Orleans and he flew the North American F-100 Super Sabre.

For me and my brother, a visit from Mr. Al was akin to having Saints quarterback Archie Manning over for supper.  Tommy & I hung on his every word, asking him questions such as what was it like going faster than your own voice, did his F-100 have a name, have you ever shot down any Russians or had he ever had to bail out of an airplane?  Up we would go to our bedroom so Mr. Al could examine our latest modeling efforts.  “You boys have been busy because I think I see a few new ones”, he would say.  Naturally his favorite was also the F-100.  “What color is your Super Saber, Mr. Al?  Do you have your girl friend’s name painted on the nose of your airplane, Mr. Al?”   Eventually Mr. Al would excuse himself because he had to talk boring lawyer business with Dad.  When Mr. Al would leave, Tommy & I would demand to know when he would return.

“Soon, boys, very soon.”

“Will you bring us a picture of your airplane, please, Mr. Al?”

One Saturday morning about breakfast time my Dad tells me and my brother that Mr. Al is coming by that very morning.  “What time will Mr. Al get here?”  We demanded.  Dad looked at his watch and says that Mr. Al will get here at precisely ten a.m.

“Wow, Dad, how long will he be here? Will he have any pictures of his F-100?  Can he stay and tell us some stories?”  Dad said that Mr. Al is only coming by for a very short visit and that he would not be able to stay very long but even a short visit from Mr. Al was better than none at all.

About five minutes before ten my Dad came and got Tommy & I from our Saturday morning routine and suggested that we wait for Mr. Al on the front yard, after all it was a beautiful morning with hardly any clouds in the sky.  As we bounced around on the front yard waiting for Mr. Al to pull up Tommy and I bragged about the airplanes that we would one day fly for the Navy or Air Force.  “I’m going to have my own F-4 and will take it to the grocery store” said my brother.  “You big dummy, you can’t take an F-4 to a grocery store; you’re gonna need a helicopter so you can land it in the parking lot!”  It was about then that Dad looked at his watch and said to us that Mr. Al would be here any second.  We ran to the edge of the street and looked up and down but didn’t see his car.   “Any second now boys” said my Dad as he put his arms around us.  “Here he comes now.”

Imagine you’re standing near a train track as a train approaches.  The train rumbles, its whistle blows, the ground shakes, metal grinds and squeaks and the train looks like it’s moving fast even though it may be travelling a paltry 35 miles an hour..  An airplane moving through a cloudless sky, traveling near the speed of sound doesn’t appear that fast because there is no sense of speed: no rumbling, no squeaking or shaking, until it passes by and all hell breaks loose.

My Dad points to the sky, to our right about 30 degrees above the horizon and there in all it’s polished aluminum glory was Al Baham and his F-100 Super Saber, moving silently through the sky.  Tommy and I are stunned and speechless as only little kids can be when coming face to face with Super Man.  In a blink Mr. Al has flown past and brought with him a hurricane of sound and cascading shock waves that send all of our friends Moms running out of their houses looking around in fright and disbelief.  Mr. Al pulls up, climbs to about 4,000 feet, rolls over and catches the sun on his wings then disappears over the horizon.  Me and Tommy are dancing in our yard, hands up screaming and waving and telling everyone that has gathered “that’s our best friend, Mr. Al the fighter pilot.”  Now from our right Mr. Al is flying past again but this time he has slowed down considerably and has slightly banked to his left and there in the cockpit, bigger than life is Al Baham, attorney and fighter pilot and he is smiling waving at me and Tommy and he’s so low we can see his smile.  He rocks the wings of his F-100 and accelerates as he flies past, flames leaping from the exhaust as the afterburner ignites and in no time the other kids are asking who was that man and is he really your friend and you’re kidding he’s actually been in your room, your very own room!

I never recovered from that visit.  I just knew that I would be a fighter pilot just like Al Baham.  By the time I started college however, everyone in my family assumed I would go to Law School.  Working in restaurants to pay my rent eventually steered me to culinary school and a successful career in food; but when an airplane flies overhead, my son and I both have our eyes pointed skyward.

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