I had free reign as to the subjects I could visit, and I happily exceeded the limits of that broad license, covering everything from the Sky Typers, to an Italian Gypsy Moth aerobat to a ski plane visit high up Mount McKinley's flank. I enjoyed all of it, and some readers seemed to enjoy the ride as well.
However, the column that evoked the greatest response, "Angel on High," (March 2000) was one of the hardest to write and, in the end, was unresolved. Until now.
At the time, my eldest son, Michael, was a college senior and examining career options. He was finishing up a degree in architecture at Catholic University in Washington, but by then the idea of designing skyscrapers, shopping malls or sub shops seemed to have lost its appeal. He wanted something else, something more immediate and visceral, something over which he had direct and immediate control.
Through me, aviation had always been a factor in Mike's life. When he was just a little kid, I'd put him on my lap and let him fly whatever I was piloting. I bought him some flying lessons as birthday presents, and gave him aviation books, posters and whatnot. We went to Oshkosh. He liked it all well enough, but throughout he was far more passionate about cars. He was his own person; I let it go.
And so I was taken aback when he announced he wanted to become a naval aviator. In addition to his previous silence on the matter, there were numerous obstacles in his path, not the least of which was ferocious competition from A++ contemporaries for the relatively few slots available, and the fact that he wasn't in the Navy, or any service for that matter. He waved those away; mere details.
Not long after, he called me, full of excitement. He had discovered that another Catholic grad had preceded him. Fabulously. After graduating with an accounting degree, Kieron O'Connor joined the Navy, took flight training, and had so distinguished himself as an F-18 pilot that he was invited to join the Blue Angels. Lt. Cmdr. "Tater" O'Connor was then flying the number three slot in the famed blue diamond.
Mike wrote O'Connor, hoping for some insight, some inspiration. The Blue Angel never responded because two days after Mike mailed the letter, "Tater" O'Connor was killed, along with a new teammate, during a preshow practice flight at an airfield in Georgia. Weeks later, Mike received a handwritten note from Mary O'Connor, "Tater's" mom, saying that Mike's letter had brought comfort to the family since it showed that her son was fulfilling his mission of attracting enlistments to the very end. Later, Mike attended a memorial service for "Tater," and there the O'Connor family urged him to follow his dream.
A time for reflection followed. Mike found the idea of military service attractive, but after lots of conversation and research, he was not so enamored of the Navy. He liked the idea of flying fighters off carriers, but that was about it. A friend, a Navy officer, cautioned that a person should choose a service, not a job. Jobs can change unexpectedly, he said, but the service does not. It was good counsel, and Mike took it. He far preferred the size, flexibility and day-to-day work performed by the Coast Guard, and that's the service he joined.
After a long and labored summer in OCS, my once shaggy-haired and loose limbed artiste emerged as a close-cropped, ramrod straight ensign with a gravely serious demeanor. Party time was over. He applied for sea service and was ordered to report to USCG Cutter Escanaba in Boston.