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“Sure,” my neighbor said.
“Well, I remember when I was at Miramar, back in the real early '60s, one of the other guys in the squadron and I decided to take a couple of F-8s out for a little cross-country hop. Bob was the guy’s name. Neither of us had ever been to Vegas so we filed a flight plan for Nellis and took off one Saturday afternoon.”
AL DESCRIBED JUST what the F-8 could do, in a lot of technical detail that my neighbor understood and appreciated. Then Al explained that while he had enjoyed hell-raising as much as the next fighter pilot, his intentions on this trip were relatively pure. He’d always liked show tunes and there was a singer — I don’t remember which one — at one of the casinos that night. Al planned to play a little blackjack, eat a good dinner, and then catch the show.
Bob, it seemed, had more ambitious plans. So once they were in Vegas, they split up and agreed to meet back at the flight line at “oh-dawn-thirty.”
“Last I saw Bob,” Al said, “he was heading down the strip with this gleam in his eye.”
Al’s night went pretty much the way he planned. “When the wake-up call came, I didn’t even have to go into the bathroom to throw up. I was ready to fly.”
But when he got back out to Nellis, there was no sign of Bob.
“I figured he was just running late so I changed into my flight suit and put my g-suit on over it. Bob’s stuff was still hanging there, next to mine. Then I went into flight -ops, thinking he might have been there waiting for me. But no sign of Bob and no message from him. I drank a cup of coffee and I talked the duty officer for a while. Then it’s getting hot inside all those clothes, so I decided to take a walk out to the flight line just to get some air and look at the airplanes while I’m waiting.”
The F-8s were parked at the end of the flight line and Al had walked a long way before he came to them. And he was thinking, as he walked, that there was something wrong, something out of place, but he couldn’t quite figure out what.
He realized, when he got closer, that there was someone in the cockpit of one of the planes. He guessed that one of the enlisted men from the service crew had climbed up there and gone to sleep.
“So I went up the ladder all ready to wake the guy up and tell him to get the hell out of our airplane. Turned out, it wasn’t some Air Force tech guy. It was Bob. Totally passed out. And it seemed he had gotten separated from his clothes since I last saw him. He wasn’t wearing a single stitch except for his flight helmet. The oxygen mask was pulled off to one side and the visor was down, covering his eyes. And written on the visor, in red lipstick, along with the shape of a valentine, were the words, “Bye Bob.”
I MADE IT TO PENSACOLA not long after my daughter’s wedding. Al’s wife — “the one I should have married the first time” — met me in the driveway.
“How is he?”
“Bad,” Sheryl said. “Real bad.” Like Al, she never tried to sugar-coat it.
“I won’t stay long.”