The thing about living without a father if he’s always gone is that it takes a long time to realize he isn’t coming home. Sure, there were the facts of his accident and a memorial service where 400 men and women sang “Eternal Father,” the Navy hymn “for those in peril on the sea.” But in my head, he was just on an endless cruise. He could have been picked up by an enemy ship, I reasoned; anything was possible. Mom felt the same way, and exhausted from looking out the window in Oak Harbor for her husband, she moved us to Flint, Mich., where she had a sister. I started at a Catholic high school—Dad would have liked that—and embarked on my journey toward the most spectacularly underachieving high school career.
All through those years, my dad’s planes sat on our mantel, next to a flag from a grateful nation. His photos haunted a house he never entered. We rarely spoke about him, except using the language of myth: American hero, died serving his country. But once I passed 36, his age when he died, I became increasingly obsessed with what lay behind the legend and the marker at Arlington Cemetery.
One of the privileges and curses of being a journalist is you can put your fingers in the wounds of your pain—in my case, my father. I started working on a book about Navy pilots. I filed a Freedom of Information request and got his accident report, I went to his 50th high school reunion, and I discovered a diary he kept at the same age I was when he was killed. And I spent two years following the men and women of VAQ-135, the Black Ravens, the squadron he commanded. The pilots even pulled a few strings and got me approved for a flight in the Prowler, Dad’s old plane.
All I had to do to was pass my VIP survivor-swim qualifications up at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. My understanding was that the classes were more for my amusement and education than an actual requirement.
This proved incorrect. At lunch, I was about to take my first bite when the lieutenant tapped me on my shoulder. Did I want to knock out my basic swimming qualifications next door in the pool?
Sure. Maybe it’s the memory of Dad tossing me into the waves headfirst on Cape Cod, but swimming has always been like hooking up to a Demerol drip for me—I loved it. This would be the easy part.
I changed into my trunks and met a civilian instructor in a blue windbreaker. He had grave, sad eyes. We shook hands. I would grow to despise this superficially harmless-looking fellow. He told me to swim 200 meters alternating between the breaststroke, the sidestroke, the backstroke, and the crawl. This would be easy. I climbed to the top of a 25-foot tower, crossed my hands across my chest, and stepped over the edge. The water felt good against my skin. I moved easily through it, taking about six or seven minutes to swim the distance. I was barely winded as I lifted myself out of the pool.
Mr. Instructor shook his head sorrowfully. He wore an expression frozen between contempt and pity.
“Your crawl was decent, but the rest of the strokes aren’t cutting it. You’re doing the breaststroke completely wrong. You’re giving a frog kick when I want a scissors kick. You’d drown in five minutes trying to do that stroke in full flight gear.”
Mr. Instructor requisitioned a squat Navy seaman named Nate. For a few minutes, Nate showed me the strokes. The Navy breaststroke was particularly vexing. The leg movement seemed the exact opposite of the breaststroke I’d been apparently doing wrong for my entire life.
“OK, now give it another try,” said Mr. Instructor. He glanced at his watch.
I jumped in. I started swimming. Mr. Instructor commenced screaming.
“No, no, the stroke is up, in, out, and glide. Up, in, out, and glide.”
I sputtered through the water, not drowning. I grabbed the side. Nate swam up next to me.
“Are you nervous?” “No, why?” “Both your arms are twitching.” He was right. My forearms were quivering. Sometimes this happens. I do well under pressure until I start thinking about the pressure.
Mr. Instructor sighed dramatically.
“Well, take a break. We can try this again tomorrow at 6 a.m., but if you don’t pass it, you can’t do the rest of the quals.”
I slinked out of the pool. What did he mean, the rest of the quals?
I soon found out. I stumbled back into the lecture room. An instructor was already giving tips about ejecting from a plane near the carrier. He chattered on about releasing from your parachute harness and steering your chute away from the carrier deck and the carrier’s backwash. This was, theoretically, good information, but I was too tired to really listen. This was another error. The brief ended. Navy technicians entered the room and began rigging a parachute to a previously unnoticed contraption hanging from a high ceiling.
A few minutes later, I was told to change into a flight suit. A heavy pack was hoisted onto my back. A too-large helmet was dropped on my head. I was hooked into a harness, and virtual-reality goggles were placed over my head. I was hoisted up a few feet and then dropped. Through the goggles, I saw my boots and body heading toward a cartoon carrier. Someone started shouting.
“1,500 FEET FROM THE DECK. WHAT DO YOU DO? ARE YOU TANGLED? 500 FEET FROM THE DECK. STEER AWAY!”
Instead I smashed into the deck. Someone laughed. “That would have hurt.”